Monday, May 14, 2012

Dispatch from Kiribati II: The slow boat to Butaritari

Tarawa, Kiribati - For new readers, this is an update on our field research in Kiribati. This month, you can contribute through Scifund to help us do another round of monitoring next year. All the funds will be spent here in Kiribati. Spread the word if you can.

We returned a couple days ago from boat trip to Butaritari, at the northern end of the Gilbert Islands chain here in Kiribati. That's it on the left. Try squinting. Atolls are hard to see from a distance, but more on that later.

Butaritari is an atoll apart. Though only 200 km N of the Kiribati capital of Tarawa, it has a very different climate. The plentiful rainfall - two to three times what you get close to the equator - allows more crops to grow (bananas, squash, pawpaw), or at least grow well. It also does not experience the same amount of El Nino driven variability.

That's why this awkward to access atoll is so critical to our scientific work. Butaritari allows us to compare the effect of different levels of past temperature variability on individual corals and coral communities. We already have strong evidence that higher temperature variability can make corals more resistant to bleaching - that's the subject of our recent paper, and the discussion on Quirks and Quarks. I'm now looking at how the temperature experience influence what corals survive on the reef, and how that changes over time.

This year, getting there with the dive gear required bunking on the government "research" vessel, actually an old fishing ship that even the captain says has seen some better days (er, decades). The Kiribati tourism slogan is "for travellers, not tourists". Travel here can be fun, provided you dispense with all, I mean ALL, "western" expectations. We left Tarawa with several large drums of fuel, stacks and stacks of cargo (unloading a ship was like unloading a clown car), two fish aggregating devices, a whole load of extra passengers such that there was little floor space, a few motorbikes, dive gear, a dive compressor (it's BYO everything if you are diving in Kiribati) and a one massive tub of seaweed.

En route, in a triangular sense, we stopped in Marakei, a neighbouring atoll, to drop off some cargo, a fish aggregating device, and a number of passengers. As a first time visitor, I did the traditional tour of the key sites around the island, which is this case, was literally around the island. Marakei is a complete oval, the world as a Mobius strip. As is tradition, I left offerings to the four ancestral spirits (that's one of the statues). I guess the ancestors protected us from the wildly rolling seas on the overnights to and from Butaritari (it's a bad sign when the locals laugh and say, "phew, that was rough"). Shame I didn't get my GPS, which conked out for reasons unknown, blessed as well.

In Butaritari, after a day of negotiations for fuel, a boat and a drive, we headed out to conduct coral and fish surveys, using underwater transects and a lot of photography, at a variety of sites along the western rim. I owe a great thanks to my fish expert Toaea for coming on every exhuasting long day in the boat, and to Timon and Tonana for chipping most days.

I also learned the key lesson to never draft a group of guys to help carry a large, heavy fiberglass boat into the water, at low tide no less, without first checking whether the proprietor is willing to also rent the engine. Never assume anything when doing a field project. We got our workout, and a good laugh, that day.

Being a scientist, I'm naturally reluctant to comment much on what we found until the numbers have been crunched. I'll say that, in general, we saw what looked to be rapid recovery from the 2009-10 El Nino, which caused severe heat stress in the region.  There were still many large dead coral colonies, like this table, topped with a few young colonies. Elsewhere, there appeared to have been some impressive coral growth, like in the photo taken by Toaea, albeit often restricted to certain species.

On the final day, with a bit of air left in our tanks, Tonana and I had the chance to dive around a Japanese plane from WWII sunk in the lagoon. This relic of the war is probably only known to the people of Butaritari. I'll upload the video to my Youtube channel when I get home.

We returned nine days later with a whole different set of passengers, an large empty tub, lots of reef data including many GB of coral photos and video, a broken GPS, a wonky CTD (oh, pH data, we'll miss you), enough bananas to challenge the global cartel, bags and bags of root crops, four pigs, the unloading of which is an image that will unfortunately be emblazoned on my brain for many years, and one seriously exhausted i-Matang from Canada.

After a rough night on the open passage from Butaritari, where the winds have 1000s of kms to stir up a good well, there was much excitement when Tarawa first appeared on the horizon.

That's it in the photo. Don't see anything? The old i-Kiribati mariners, and many fishermen today, navigate between the thin, flat atolls by looking at the clouds. The shallow lagoons of the Central Gilberts shimmer an amazing greenish-blue. That green can often be seen reflected in the low clouds. It's fairly easy after a bit of practice, especially if you have a pair of polarized sunglasses.

The reflection is only one of the many tricks for navigating in this flat part of the planet. The cloud formations themselves are a good key, as are the currents, the birds and possibly also the fish, if you're got a line in the water.

For a real pro, it it easiest to navigate at night, when the sky is full of stars. I managed to work out was north and south, thanks to the Southern Cross, still visible this close to the equator, and the Big Dipper which points to where the North Star would be if we were further north. But that's amateur hour. As Tonana and others relayed with great pride, the old i-Kiribati mariners were experts at navigating by the night sky. That knowledge was all passed down orally, and much is being lost with today's generation. It takes time and patience to learn such skills, something that's in much shorter supply today, even in Kiribati.

I'm off again shortly to survey Abaiang, another key site for the coral research.

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