Friday, October 20, 2006

Return to base...

Some time has past since my last post.

After a final exciting day of diving we have returned to Honolulu to process data and await our next expedition. Our final day was spent off the southeast coast of the Big Island of Hawaii where Pele, goddess of the volcanoe was obliging, sending small streams of lava pouring over the sea cliffs and into the water. Aobove water we were treated with favorable winds which blew the acrid plumes of steam and sulfurid acid away from our boat and on toward the clouds.

Below water, the water rapidly changed from Hawaii's crystal clear blue, to a dark, ash-filled soup of greys and browns. We knew we were getting close to the excitement when we started to hear the cracking and popping of lava as it enters the water. That's it! No need to get crazy. I think this was the first dive ever we have had to call on account of lava!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Cliffs of Molokai

We spent the day towing along the northern coast of Molokai. For the most part, the below water scenes paled compared to those above. Underwater the terrain was sand and rubble with the occasional spectacular wall dropping off into oblivion. On one dive, Rusty and I were skimming quietly over a black sand plane when the depth started to gradually increase. When we hit 80 feet, I signaled the boat to turn left and head closer to shore. This they did, but the depth did not change. After several minutes heading directly to shore, we felt the boat turn to the right again. The depth had not changed. We were confused. We noticed the water to our left was darker than usual and banked the boards for a closer look. We were greeted by a vertical wall and could see the waves breaking against it 80 feet above our heads. Why were we being towed at 80 feet? We had two choices: 80 or 0. We skirted the wall for 10 minutes or so seeing occasional black coral bushes, a few fish, and a few soft corals. On the whole, though, aside from the topography, Molokai was not the most interesting of the below water realms we have explored.

Above water, however, was an entirely different story. The tallest sea cliffs in the world rose over our small orange boat as we made our way down the coast. Vertical masses of rock with a dusting of foliage clinging to the faces. Offshore, island pinnacles remain where the rest of the cliff face has fallen into the sea.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Five Fathom Pinnacle

Two days ago we were off Kaula Rock, southwest of the island of Niihau. Rising from the sea like some ancient gray cathedral, this mass of pyroclastic rock was once used as a live fire target by the US Navy. Today is home to monk seals and an amazing variety of bird life. More similar in appearance to some of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands than any of the main eight, Kaula drops off steeply into the abyss. It took all our talent just to stay close enough to shore to conduct our surveys. The wind was whipping our little boat and even at idle speed we were taking waves over the bow and sides every few minutes.

Still further west was a feature known to us only as Five Fathom Bank or Five Fathom Pinnacle. Denoted on the chart simply as a number "5." Rusty mentioned it as a site he had dived about 8 years ago and seemed to remember it being nice. It was decided that we should attempt to place some instruments on the site and possibly conduct an REA survey. After completing our last survey at Kaula Rock, the Tow-Team set of across the ocean to the west, in search of this mysterious feature. After a bit of searching we came to an area of discolored water and larger waves, indicating a pinnacle below. Rusty and I were up in the dive rotation and prepared to make the first dive. The current was screaming over the top of the pinnacle and we motored well upstream before we rolled over the side. Hitting the water we immediately headed for the bottom to catch the pinnacle as we flew past. Rising from the ocean floor 200 feet below, the pinnacle comes to within 35 feet of the surface. As we dropped we were able to swim into the eddy downstream and grab onto the rock. Seventy-five feet or so in diameter, the pinnacle provided a good shield from the current.

Once we had stabilized and had a chance to look around it became clear Rusty had been downplaying the whole affair. The scene was spectacular. Almost beyond words. Clouds of fish surrounded us everywhere we looked, at time obscuring other areas of the pinnacle. Big fish, tiny fish, and everything in between. Jacks, Mentos Triggers, Rainbow Runners, Unicorns, Splitfins, Sharks (little ones), Surgeonfish, Angels, and Monk Seals. It was amazing! We spent close to 20 minutes clinging to the rock wall bordering a narrow channel between the pinnacle and a smaller one not far away. A school of 20 or more Whitemargin Unicorns, rare in Hawaii, were hanging in the current, offering a tail flick every now and again to answer our desperate fin kicks and acrobatics just to hold position. The Monk Seals were ever present curious of our every move. Without a doubt, this was the best dive in Hawaii. Having covered 124 miles underwater so far this expedition, that is saying a lot.

None of us can wait to return to retrieve the instruments we left there this year.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Kauai through the mud

Kauai was not the greatest today. Low visibility for the most part although we did have a nice wall with big parrotfish and surgeonfish on our first dive. There has been a lot of rain on Kauai recently which has resulted in a lot of river outflow and murky water. Coming up from our first dive today we hit what looked like a tan ceiling at about 15 feet. Below 15 feet the water was pretty clear, about 20 meters visibility. Above 15 feet we couldn't see the towboard bridal 2 feet in front of us. It made of a very interesting effect.

The REA team wasn't able to make one dive today on account of visibility. They also had some excitement when a particularly large wave crashed OVER their boat on the way back to the ship. Two people were momentarily washed overboard (and were picked up 30 seconds later). The boat was filled with water but drained quickly. No one was seriously injured but it was certainly exciting.

Anyway, tomorrow we are off to Niihau which will hopefully be better. Less runoff. So far we have completed 59 tow surveys and have covered 143 kilometers UNDERWATER!!!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Sands of Lanai

For the past two days we have been working off the island of Lanai. Once almost entirely cultivated in pineapple, Lanai is now home to a small town and several high class resorts. I am told it was here that Bill Gates was married; renting out the entire island to be free from reporters, paparazzi, and the like.

For the most part, Lanai is fairly dry except for the higher elevations. Being in the lee of Maui and Molokai, seas are generally small and some of the highest coral cover in the Main Hawaiian Islands can be found off it's northern and eastern coasts. Visibility here leaves something to be desired, however. Nowhere could we see more than twenty meters. Fish were sparse, but the coral cover was incredible.

The south side of Lanai had less to offer in terms of coral cover, but visibility was stellar and the underwater features were amazing. Canyons and cathedrals with water clarity that rivaled Kona. Gliding past massive stone ramparts we were surrounded by schools of pennantfish and pyramid butterflies, some of my favorites.

The rest of Lanai ... sand. Sand as far as the eye can see. We actually had an entire 45 minute survey composed of nothing but sand! But, sand has nice shells so every could does indeed have a silver lining.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Kona Paradise

While the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is a secret no longer, she hides her treasures well. The stark, dry, lava strewn shores belie the beauty that lies beneath the waves. Minimal rainfall, low runoff, and limited development have left the waters off Kona near crystal clear and, while there are places where fishing line and gear shroud the bottom, the fish life is impressive.

Our day started near the tip of SouthPoint but high winds and waves forced us west and north along the coast. After a few miles things had settled enough to allow launching of the small boats and our day had begun. From the very first survey we knew we were in paradise. Thirty to forty meter visibility, large fish everywhere, and near one hundred percent live coral cover. It was like diving in an aquarium without end. As my data sheet rapidly filled with parrotfish, unicornfish, emperors, and surgeonfish, I knew it was going to be a good day.

Kona did not disappoint. On the third dive of the day we had been running for nearly half an hour when out of the blue appeared two sleak shapes moving hesitantly, but steadily towards us. Two seven foot scalloped hammerheads moving in from the deep. They were magnificent! Curious and ever watchful on moved in beside us and kept pace for just a few seconds before drifting off behind and off along the reef. It was magical and wonderful. So sleek, so powerful, and so perfect. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Wind and Waterfalls

20 14'N x 155 46'W We awoke this morning to one of the most stunning views imaginable. The Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Towering cliffs, breathtaking valleys and no less that 18 waterfalls cascading into the ocean. It was a site to behold.

The winds have freshen more than a little and we found ourselves working in 30-35 knot winds and quickly building seas. Swells were running at 4-6 feet by the time we had our first team of divers in the water and those on the boat were in envy of those in the more tranquil depths. We started at a set of three small islets which were touted as a premier dive site on northeast hawaii. Unless you really like sand and boulders, I am afraid you are in for a little disappointment. Further up the coast the underwater scenery improved and with it the resident fish populations. Without a doubt, the Big Island has risen to the top in terms of number and diversity of large fishes. And with only one day of surveys. Tomorrow we head to South Point, appropriately at the southern end of the island. Don't the the Florida Keys fool you. This is the southernmost point in the U.S. Conditions look to be stiff with increasing winds and seas. Hopefully we will be able to find a good lee in which to work.

Stay tuned for the full report...