May 24th, 2017: Pisserach – a view from underwater

After a rough night of rocking and rolling on our seagoing home for the next 3 weeks, we pulled up to Piserrach as the sun was rising. The excitement of the team was palpable! This island was added to our itinerary at the last minute after productive meetings in Chuuk and nobody knew what to expect.  We knew that flexibility was going to be the key for a productive expedition but adding an entire island, in a different state, at the last minute, was definitely flexibility at its best!

A satellite image of Namonuito Atoll. The atoll is the slightly lighter blue shape, while Piserrach Island is visible in the lower right.

This is the first time that the team has worked out of Yap state and possibilities for expansion to other islands is a testament to the strength of a community based approach – word has gotten around.  Our team leaders prepared to go to land for a welcome ceremony and to be granted permission to begin the diving operations.  As this small group headed off to the island in a local boat, the divers stayed behind, waiting for information on local dive sites and permission to enter the water.  Fins and masks in hand, tanks and regulators ready to go, the team could hardly contain ourselves – the blue water calling.

After months of preparation back in the US, days of preparation in Chuuk, and one long night on the boat, we were finally here.  We got the word from land and headed out to the reef.  We dropped the shallow water team off first and headed around a point on the reef to the deep site.  As we rolled off the zodiac, one could almost hear a collective ‘aaaaahhhhh’, we were finally here, on the reef and ready to start counting.

Our goal is to assess the health of the coral reefs, paying particular attention to any issues, challenges or curiosities that the local community might have. The Fish team started the process, rolling out a transect tape and counting all the larger, conspicuous and mobile fishes, estimating the size of each one as we move along.

A quadrat in place during survey! 

“Team Benthic” lets the fish divers move out ahead and begins their work of randomly placing a quadrat (fancy word for a small square made of PVC) around the reef and photographing each one in detail, to be analyzed later on the computer.

When the fish diver gets to the end of the transect, he turns around and comes back along, counting less mobile and cryptic species.  The benthic divers falls into line behind the fish counter and records the benthic composition falling under a point every half meter along the transect tape.

In this carefully considered choreography, everyone has a job and together we emerge with a picture of the reef, literally in photos and figuratively in our minds.  This first dive of the expedition was intriguing in several ways. First, the reef structure itself was variable – the shallow team reported good coral cover and structure.  Well developed corals provide the hiding holes and food for many fishes, and are critical to a healthy reef.

The deep team surveyed an area with much less coral, this location clearly gets the full brunt of waves and swell.  Both locations had a variety of fish and remarkably, both teams observed sharks, 3 different species in a single dive!  Sharks are often indicators of healthy reefs and these observations were a good omen.  After years of surveys in Ulithi, the fish team recorded at least 15 species that have not been seen at that atoll. All in all, an impressive start to our expedition as we pulled anchor, the sun was setting, we reflected on our first full day of underwater work.  The land team will post another report as we head off to Satawal.