The Pacific Ocean is a large place. Spin the globe away from the familiar scenes of continents and try to get a sense of how big the Pacific Ocean really is…. It’s huge. Now, imagine sailing it – truly, with sails, no power, and no internet. No Pokemon Go. No morning news. No one and nothing but the ship you are on, and your fellow shipmates.

The other side of the globe – all ocean, all Pacific.

The SSV Robert C Seamans – owned by SEA, at sea!

On July 3, students and staff from Sea Education Association (SEA) aboard the SSV Robert C. Seaman set sail for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area from Honolulu, HI. This is their third year going. Each year, they bring students and help to conduct some critically important science on the physical, chemical, and biological oceanography of the region in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and us (the New England Aquarium – NEAq). This year, there is one WHOI student, and two NEAq folks aboard to help with the science. Nick Pioppi (NEAq staff from Visitor Education) and Adrienne Breef-Pilz (an NEAq research intern in the Rotjan Lab) are on the expedition in order to complete some work that we started on the last expedition (last September). They will be diving to take photos and photoquadrats to assess the damage from the 2015-16 El Nino, which is the worst yet on record in human history. This is partly funded by the Prince Albert of Monaco II Foundation. 

For those of you who don’t know me, I am the co-Chair of the PIPA Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Chief Scientist for the Phoenix Islands Protected Area Conservation Trust. It’s part of my job to help run and coordinate these expeditions, and to relay the science back to the Kiribati Government, who owns and manages PIPA.

The Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) met recently in Tarawa, Kiribati. The SAC is co-chaired by Tukabu Teroroko and Dr. Randi Rotjan

This is a unique opportunity to do wok across expeditions – we are now crossing expedition platforms to complete work in a coordinated way, which is very exciting. Work that was started last year on the Hanse Explorer (a scuba-enabled ship) is now being check in on by the Seamans (an oceanographic vessel).

I help to coordinate these missions with satellite communications, and direct the reef-related science onboard the Seamans. The cross-links between expeditions and institutions is articulated in a recent letter here: SEA Rotjan letter

Among other trip objectives, Nick, Adrienne and Chrissy (Christina Hernandez is a WHOI student) will be working on a project with larval tuna. This project is a collaborative effort between Drs. Jan Witting, Joel Llopiz, Simon Thorrold, and myself, funded by the PIPA Trust, to assess the presence and population of larval tuna within and outside of PIPA waters. Since PIPA fully closed fishing in Jan 1 2015, there are no data available on tuna stocks.

Fishing stops in PIPA as of January 1 2015

Oceana and Global Fishing Watch observe the change in fishing effort in PIPA between 2014 (fishing allowed) and 2015 (PIPA becomes a no-take marine reserve)

Christina, Adrienne, and Nick will be identifying fish larvae to species, aging them, and mapping their location to determine whether larvae are more associated with oceanographic vs. bathymetric features, which is a novel study that will help us to predict spawning patterns.  

baby fish
A larval tuna found in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area aboard the SEA SSV Robert C Seamans in 2015

Most importantly, this trip is aimed at assessing the oceanography – which is an objective spearheaded by SEA, and of which this is year 3 in the series. Year 1 had ENSO neutral conditions (ENSO = El Nino Southern Oscillation), Year 2 was one of the worst El Ninos in history, and now (Year 3) is a La Nina Year. We are all excited to see how the oceanographic conditions within PIPA have changed, and what that means for the biology.

ENSO neutral (left) and El Nino (Right) temperatures in the Central Pacific - what a difference!

After all, oceanographic temperature, salinity, pH, and nutrients impact the oceanic food chain. See these beautiful plankton and diatoms? They fuel the entire chain – without them, no tuna. No sharks. Plankton are important unsung heroes of the ocean.

Open ocean phytoplankton and diatoms (Image: J. Witting, SEA)

So sail with us as we try to understand the changing ocean, the changing conservation landscape, and the importance and meaning of current conditions in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. And best part: if you’re reading this at home, you’re not seasick. 🙂

(oh, and if you’re hungry for more, please check out the students blogs at SEA’s site: SSV Seamans blog)