After this initial period, the 22 students flew to Honolulu where we boarded the tall ship the Robert C. Seamans, and joined an existing crew of 14 mates and scientists. The next 6 weeks were spent living and working as the crew of the ship as we sailed South from Hawaii towards PIPA. As an oceanographic research vessel, days (and nights) were spent split between sail-handling, lookout and manning the helm on deck and working in the lab. We did almost twice daily deployments of a device that took water samples at different depths up to 600 meters, and towed nets that collected zooplankton, fish larvae and other biomass. We looked at things such as water temperature, salinity, currents, chlorophyll-a concentrations, and plankton densities, all to measure the health of the ecosystems we passed through, and generally gather data on as of yet relatively unresearched areas. While in PIPA, we were able to anchor and explore uninhabited islands and snorkel on nearly pristine reefs, free from any recent direct human influence, as the MPA is deemed a no-take zone, and very few people live within hundreds of miles across the Pacific. The sea surface temperatures we recorded near the equator were especially high this year, so one thing we looked out for in particular was coral bleaching, unfortunately one type of human influenced destruction that effects the whole ocean over, not just where people live. One day we were lucky enough to see a pod of about 40 sperm whales swimming around the ship, a sight almost unheard of since before their populations plummeted with industrial whaling. My individual research project was looking at the abundance and distribution of seabirds (as observed from the ship) in and around the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, and comparing this data to that collected on a similar voyage last year as well as to biovolume and chlorophyll-a concentrations in the area.
Overall, this trip gave me insight to what goes into a research cruise, and brought me to some beautiful locations with incredible biodiversity. Hopefully, our data will help confirm the good that the no-take status of the MPA is doing for the fisheries and conservation of other species in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area!