Archive for August 4th, 2011

The Fish of Midway

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

It became critical that we find our way to a North Hawaii reef for a look before we left. In the end we played the Southern Hospitality card with “Midway” Miller.

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Miller is from Florida so we were able to converse easily about such topics as the scary lightning in Florida Bay, the demographics of Lake Okeechobee, clear water diving in Florida springs and more.  Miller loaded up some summer volunteers and took us across the lagoon for a look at this very unique reef .

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The reef is unique for several reasons. It’s very far north at 28 degrees and the corals are fine carpets of white and purple rather than warm water towers and fans. Fifty percent of the fish are endemic only to these islands and we saw lots that were new to us. So the fish-naming gauntlet is down ( take that, Midway Pete and Kristen the Coral Girl), some of these guys ain’t in our book.

Like this speckled lippy spadefish.

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We saw the infamously named Old Woman Wrasse, who tasted K as old women are wont to do.

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The parrot fish here take the Pacific prize for size and good nature…

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even when confronted by a scrappy territorial damsel fish.

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There was a new flavor of toby.

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A faded yellow-striped sea bass.

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A crazy test-pattern tang.

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A leopard blenny (half leopard, half blenny but the blenny half is dominant)

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A prehistoric looking spikey-dorsal wrasse.

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A small curious octopus.

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And a peppermint rockfish (totally made up)

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28°13.52′N 177°19.10′W   03-Aug-11 02:28 UTC

The Baby Birds of Midway

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

There were lots of baby birds on Midway when we were there.  We arrived at the tail end of the albatross fledging season but there were other baby birds scattered around the island. Red tailed tropic birds were still rearing fluffy chicks in ground nests.

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White tern chicks are somehow hatched and raised on bare tree limbs with no nests.

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They only survive by hanging on to a perch from the minute they hatch until they can fly.

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These mid-ocean islands are like maternity wards revolving with the seasons through the birthing or hatching of multiple birds species, Hawaiian monk seals, and turtles. Thanks to Pete, the chief biologist at the refuge, we gained a huge appreciation for the challenges life presents to these young creatures, particularly the albatrosses.

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Midway Island is the largest rookery for Laysan albatrosses in the world.  Blackfooted albatrosses also rear their chicks on the island, but in fewer numbers.  By the time we got there most of this year’s crop of albatross chicks had already fledged and flown off to sea, but to our eyes the place was still covered with birds in various styles of plumage.

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Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land to meet other eligible albatrosses (courtship can take years), breed with their special someone (they meet up year after year), and raise their young.  They lay only one egg per year that they breed, and the egg cannot be left unattended for more than 18 minutes or the chick inside will die, so the parents take turns – one incubating the egg while the other goes off to sea to feed.  After it hatches, the parents take turns heading out to forage for food for their chick.  When one parent returns, the other is quick to take off for another foraging run.  These runs can be thousands of miles and as the chick ages the parents are gone for longer periods, leaving the chick alone.  The chick must wait in the same spot for its next meal delivery, which may take weeks at a time.  If they wander off the parent may not be able to find them, with dire consequences for the youngster.

While they wait with nothing to eat and only occasional rain to drink, the chicks sit, conserving their energy.  A lucky few have shady nest spots, but most have to sit for days in the hot tropical sun.  They ease back on their haunches with their backs to the sun and lift their feet up to try to keep them cool.

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If they survive their time at sea, the parents return and are surrounded by bleating, pleading, famished youngsters.

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But they know which chick is theirs.

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Crouching low before its mom or dad, the youngster begs with shrill whistles and bats its bill at its parent’s mouth until they cough up the goods (see video on our YouTube channel here).

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Unfortunately in its search for food adult albatrosses often pick up undigestible bits, including an alarming amount of plastic debris. It might be mistaken identity (a cigarette lighter might resemble a squid) or there may be edibles attached to the debris.  The dutiful parent feeds it all to the chick.   Bits of plastic brought back from the sea by albatrosses were scattered on the ground all over the island: bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bits of toys, and even toothbrushes.  This debris had either been barfed up by the parents before they took off on another long flight, or were sadly left over from within the remains of dead birds.  Many dead chicks are found with their stomachs literally stuffed with plastic.

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If a chick is lucky enough to survive a few months, eventually the parents leave it to find its own way in the world.  Driven by hunger the babies begin to figure out what their wings are for and how to use them.  Gusts of wind are especially exciting.  The chicks all spread their wings and hop up into the air to try to get some hang time.

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Eventually they figure out the benefits of a running start.  Many practice flights end in water landings.  As long as they keep their wings dry the young birds have a pretty good chance of getting it all together and taking off for a life at sea.

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28°12.26′N 177°23.80′W   03-Aug-11 03:28 UTC

The View From Midway

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Our Midway stop began with a big thunderstorm building at dusk.

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Pilots flying near it later confirmed that it was a system of storm cells 100 miles in diameter, the size of which they’d never seen before. The top of the anvil head was at 50,000 ft and they became nervous when they saw a lightning bolt shoot straight up from the top towards outer space.

50,000 ft lower was a terrifying place to be. The squalls caught us at midnight after  a day of sailing just out of reach. By 0300 lightening bolts were slamming into the water all around us. There was no reason for us not to take a strike and after 45 minutes of hiding out below with the autopilot steering towards the edge of the storm the bolt with our name on it found us. Half the electronics went black the other half locked up. The radar froze with a final image of the squall in it’s last sweep like a yellow death-grin. We were very thankful that the hull and rigging were fine and no one was hurt.

The morning gave us our best view – the monster we had just passed through well behind us, though we weren’t positive that it wasn’t going to come back after us for another round.

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But before you could say “Zzzzzzt” we were tied up safely on the tugboat dock in the Midway turning basin.  K had several days of electronic work-arounds to solve before we could put back to sea.

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In a bit of a daze with our nerves still a little frazzled we went through a brief orientation to the do’s and don’ts of the wildlife refuge.  Then it was dinnertime and we found ourselves chowing down on an incredible Thai buffet and salad bar, with a selection of desserts. This was the most surreal event in two years at sea.  We felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz.  Only twelve hours earlier we had not been at all sure that the voyage of Bint al Khamseen would have a happy ending as we cringed beneath a very, very angry Zeus who was dropping lightning bolts around us like dangerously close artillery, but here we were making new friends and taking a second trip to the ice cream machine like college freshmen. We were invited to the bowling alley.

After stuffing ours gullets at the buffet, we made our way back to the boat and went to sleep, thankful and more than a little disoriented. In the morning S commuted off on a pink girl-bike through fields of fledgeling albatrosses to do laundry and meet the residents while K field stripped our key electrical systems.

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The albatross chicks displayed a variety of personality types.  As we passed, most would regard us with what seemed like mild curiosity.  Some would get alarmed by our passing and backpedal away as fast as they could while clapping their beaks at us.  Others would just sit there and coolly look us up and down with their soulful eyes.  A few took no notice.

The human residents were super helpful and we had constant offers to help with anything we needed. Joe and Perjim came down to check out our HF radio. Joe is a very serious ham (KH4/W5FJG) and we kept a daily schedule with him for about 2000 miles.

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It didn’t take long to see that this was a wildlife refuge for good reason. Even far offshore we could tell that this is a very birdy island. Laysan albatrosses were sweeping across the waves along with frigate birds, boobies, terns and tropicbirds.

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Every inch of the island had a nest or a roost of some kind…

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and the air was full of wingbeats.

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Huge protected green turtles left their naps on the beach…

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to swim over and inspect our steering gear.

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Curious white terns interrupted their lunches…

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to hover over us and inspect our head gear.

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Frigate birds were inspecting there wing pits.

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Red tailed tropic birds were performing endless acrobatics.

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Crazy emerald green invasive beetles were eating everything in sight.

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And 400,000 young albatrosses filled the land.

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28°12.82′N 177°21.80′W   03-Aug-11 01:28 UTC