Phoenix Islands Protected Area
PIPA: The First Dive
This post comes from Aquarium Intern Adrienne Breef-Pilz, who studies corals in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
The time has finally come for us to start our dive missions, as we like to refer to them as. We are tasked with “getting eyes on the reef” as we are the only scientific expedition planned to travel through PIPA in 2016. This means that the benthic photographs we take will be used to analyze the health of the reef following the higher-than-normal ocean temperatures that accompanied the El Niño event of 2015. In order to get close to the corals and the reef, we will be using scuba gear. Against ship culture, where you pack as little as possible, we arrived on board with two large rolling dive bags filled with fins, mask, regulators, BCDs, wet suits, cameras, and radios. Waiting for us on the boat were 4 aluminum 80 ft3 tanks, a compressor to refill our tanks, and enough dive weights to even out our buoyancy. Everything we need to spend some quality time underwater.
Diving on a reef that has only been seen by a handful of people is special. Our first dive was inside of the lagoon in Kanton Island within PIPA. The site Coral Castle seemed aptly named as coral plates were stacked on top of each other leading to the surface as turrets on a castle. The fish swam right up to my mask as I descended into their kingdom and a reef shark swam by to protect his domain.
As we approached the reef, the green plates of coral beckoned us down as fish darted in and out and back into the coral structures. Colorful parrotfish nosily ground and scraped coral so loudly that it seemed as if the water was alive with the popping sound of Pop Rocks. Wrasses swam around the tops of the coral, many of which I never knew existed. I peeked into a hole and found two eyes and a mouthful of teeth staring back at me belonging to a grouper. We locked eyes and I slowly backed away to leave it be. Above his hole, moorish idols swam by and blue tangs danced on top. The diversity of butterfly fishes was unbelievable. The different snout lengths emphasized how each fish feeds in a different manner, thus fulfilling a different role on the reef.
It was a humbling experience to have the opportunity to visit such a beautiful place, even if only as short-term visitors.