Surveying Across an Archipelago

The Hawaiian Archipelago is spread out over >1500 miles from Big Island to Midway – about the same distance as from Philadelphia to Denver.  As part of my dissertation research, I am surveying reef communities across the Archipelago to see how the community changes and what factors are tied to community composition. It is worth noting that NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division has a great monitoring plan in place for surveying reef fishes and benthic cover as well as an awesome strategy for surveying the tiny critters (cryptobiota) on the reef with autonomous reef monitoring structures. These methods still miss some of the semi-cryptic reef critters including the communities associated with Pocillopora corals – and that is where my work comes in!

It was great to have HIMB's Captain Jason Jones get my team out to hard to reach dive sites around O'ahu.
HIMB’s Captain Jason Jones got my team to hard-to-reach dive sites around O’ahu.

To tackle the challenge of determining how these communities vary across the Hawaiian archipelago, I began surveying around O‘ahu. Conveniently, I live on this island – so I was able to work with other scientists at the University of Hawai‘i (ranging from undergraduates to faculty) to survey over 700 coral-associated communities. We were able to schedule dives to sites on days when the conditions were good; we were familiar with most sites; and we were able to use university boats for a few of the sites.

To survey in the North West Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), I worked to obtain permits and support from NOAA to go on a summer research cruise. Over the course of three weeks, working with two fabulous fellow graduate

Working off of NOAA research vessels in the NWHI with an awesome team of UH divers.
Working off of NOAA research vessels in the NWHI with a team of UH divers.

students, I was able to survey an additional 500 corals across Midway, Lisanski, and French Frigate Shoals. To complete these surveys, I used google maps and knowledge from experienced NWHI divers to selected ideal site locations. I tried to space out my sites around each atoll and was fairly successful, though ultimately we were constrained by ship logistics, weather, and time. For me, the logistics for these surveys were pretty straight forward, tanks and small boats were available every day, and I was housed on the ship with my dive team.

Coral ID tags increase survey efficiency!
Coral ID survey tags.

All these surveys have helped me streamline my survey techniques. I can quickly ID species within Pocilloporas; I can easily train another science diver to collect in situ coral measurements: and I have created brightly colored, numbered temporary tags to clearly mark corals for dive team to ensure we ID each coral with the same number, do not miss corals, and always survey the same coral. But now I have a new challenge: I am organizing logistics for diving on Hawaiian islands that I do not live on, without the help of dive boats.

By emailing friends of friends, I have been able to find other AAUS divers who are interested in helping out and even have offered couches for me to crash on. On the island of Hawai‘i, it looks like UH Hilo will be able to help me with SCUBA tanks and safety gear. From reading various shore dive webpage comment sections, it seems some sites will be a breeze (the ones people often shore dive at)… however to space my sites out around these islands I will be trying to survey at sites that are not where people often recreationally dive… some sites where it seems people don’t even regularly visit. Around O‘ahu I was able to use boats for these types of hard to get to sites and I was able to wait for the perfect conditions.

Potential dive sites spread out around the island of Hawai'i.
Potential dive sites spread out around the island of Hawai’i.

With limited time on Maui and the island of Hawai‘i, I will be working hard to keep up with surf and weather reports. For every site, we will observe challenges from the land, snorkel sites if we have concerns and want to check them out. And as always be prepared to make the decision to not dive or abort a dive as needed. In the winter, the HI islands get big surf on north shores, and in the summer the big surf is on south shores… I will be headed to Maui and the island of Hawai‘i in the next few months. I am hopeful that if I have 1-2 weeks in each place I will be able to catch a window to dive each shoreline… we’ll see!