Kure Atoll Blog – July/September, 2015

September 28, 2015 – Kure Landing

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This is the first close-up view of the Kure Landing for all Kure visitors. The pier hosts all comings and goings and is a great place to watch sunsets and take measure of oncoming weather. The main camp is roughly 100 yards through the notch in the dunes (just right of the canopy).

Once upon an atoll…

Adventure stories were always my favorite childhood tales. The ones where the protagonists go on a long journey and wander through strange lands encountering abandoned buildings, friendly strangers and incredible natural wonders along the way.

The past few days have been a whirlwind of new experiences and as I try to find the familiar within each new task, I feel like my childhood bookshelf has come to life.

Our team left Midway Atoll at 5:00 pm (HST) aboard NOAA’s ship, the Sette and within 30 minutes, we were asked to leave an off limits deck as we pulled away from port. The safety rules, regulations and strict time management practiced by the sailors are incredibly intimidating and left me feeling like a small child on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia.

In the morning, the sailors and our team gather bleary eyed on the no longer off-limits deck to go over the day’s plan. The staff aboard the Sette seems to have a pretty good grasp on how to use their small boats to move us and our field kit to the island as they have been doing similar operations at each island along the archipelago. Usually, Midway is their last stop before heading to Honolulu, but twice a year, they pop over to Kure before returning to the main islands.

I barely listen to the meeting after the Chief Scientist mentions that we are just outside Kure Atoll. I scan the horizon on all sides of the ship and I can only see waves.

It doesn’t look like we are anywhere.

Eventually, I spot the one lone ironwood tree that has been left on Kure to help people find the land, as the island is flat and near impossible to see from sea level. As my small boat speeds towards the island, the captain shakes his head from side to side and tells Eryn and me that he can’t imagine being dropped off and left for six months. We tell him that after a night on his very rocky ship, we can’t imagine living on a boat.

It takes most of the day to shuffle gear from the ship to Kure and Kure to the ship. The amount of gear that is moved around in eight hours is impossible to describe. However, the camaraderie and bustling nature of the day seemed like something straight out of the Shire (think JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy). The team that just spent 6 months on Kure spends their last day undertaking hard labor and they manage to smile and talk story throughout. A few people who work for NMFS come ashore to check on Hawaiian Monk Seals but they also lift endless buckets and push wheelbarrows from the beach to camp and back again.

Just before sunset, the small boats collect the final bags of marine debris as well as the summer field crew. Tired and now alone, our winter field team walks back to camp together.

The three-minute walk probably feels like returning home for a few of our seasoned crewmembers. However, as a first time Kurean, I feel like Goldilocks, deciding to make myself at home in a few abandoned buildings that sit in a clearing that is only visible after stumbling along a path lined with large shrubs.

As I make a cup of tea, I try out a few coffee cups. One feels a bit small. One seems a bit big. There’s one with an orange handle and a butterfly painted on that feels just right.

I find myself poking around the left behind items. Does this raincoat fit? It’s a nice color and doesn’t smell too bad. My room’s previous tenant left behind some incense and a hat. I light the incense immediately and wear the hat while doing so – I love them, thanks. I rearrange a few of my items around the room but don’t make much progress, as I’m exhausted from the day of heavy lifting, new friends and too much sun.

I put sheets and a blanket on the bed and sit down to test it out. If Goldilock’s three bears show up tonight, they’ll probably find me asleep in their bed too.

Aloha,
Noel

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September 23, 2015 – A Moment on Midway

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Program Director Cynthia Vanderlip (with camera) looks out the window on the Midway approach. Out the window, you can see a tip of Midway Atoll and the fringing reef that protects the atoll from the open sea. Unlike most Kure crews, the 2015 Winter crew was able to skip the 7 to 10 day voyage up the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain and flew to Midway Atoll where they boarded a ship for the 60 mile cruise to Kure.

“In the midst of a huge ocean, the tiny dots of sand that form Midway Atoll may seem insignificant, but its islands house a unique blend of elements from the world’s natural and historic treasury, including unsurpassed wildlife resources and remnants from one of the most decisive battles of World War II. “

Boasting the largest colony of Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, including the oldest known Laysan Albatross (Wisdom, 64+ years old), and an immense historical background dating back to World War II, it’s hard not to be in awe when stepping onto Midway Island for the first time. Though there were no albatross at hand for our arrival, there were still plenty of sights to be seen. From the fluttering of White Terns throughout the crisp blue sky to the influx of thousands of Bonin Petrels as the evening sun set, it was not just an ornithologist’s dream but even a grand spectacle for any one admiring Mother Nature’s beauty. As one of our crewmembers aptly remarked when seeing the turquoise water for the first time, “Wow…that’s real? So I guess it’s not just painted like that, it actually looks as gorgeous as they depict it!” Mixed with this current image was the understanding that we stood on historical grounds. A place where many admired men and women called home and contributed to the efforts of our nation during times of war. It is with a true respect to stand there and imagine what it once looked like, about the roll it had played. It above all though, was an honor.

With Midway being the stopover point before boarding our vessel to Kure Atoll, our crew called the place home for a night. As not to just be casual visitors, we put ourselves to work in helping the island’s wildlife refuge biologists with their restoration efforts. This included pulling non-native ironwood trees, potting cuttings of native vegetation for propagation efforts, and the ever cute experience of feeding White Tern chicks collected from larger ironwood trees being removed in selected areas. Though I have never been to Midway before, you could see the impact and success their staff has already had in managing the resources there. It was a small reminder of the work we were still looking forward to do on Kure Atoll and the restoration of its habitat for these same seabird colonies.

We all would like to extend our thanks to the hospitality and generosity of the Midway staff. Not only is it a privilege to say we have now been, it was one last moment to have a few things we would no longer see once we arrived on Kure. This included pleasant bike rides between facilities, though weak and intermittent, our last chance at using the Internet (if you’re wondering how we are our sending these blogs, we have Inmarsat BGAN we can utilize to send large files like pictures so we aren’t entirely isolated), and a couple more bites of fresh fruit and veggies. With the quarantine procedures set on Kure to reduce further introductions of non-native species, fresh produce isn’t allowed so none of us will see the likes of a fresh apple, a nice head of lettuce, or a ripe avocado for the next six-months. But that’s the life of living in a field camp. You make sacrifices and we still have plenty of food to look forward to. That one last bowl of salad or heaping cone of ice cream though, that is to be cherished when you get that moment such as we did on Midway.

After numerous hours of preparation and work to get ready for this field season, Midway served as that final checkmark to the fact we would soon finally be on Kure. Here is to what lies ahead and the great journey we all are in store for. Thank you again Midway, it was a pleasure. See you again when we finish this adventure.

Kure crewmember, Ryan Potter

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September 16, 2015 – All Hands Present

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Kureans at send-off party for the winter 2015 crew: beginning from the lower left – Noël (Winter (2015), Eryn (Summer 2012, Winter 2014, Winter 2015), Martha (Winter 2015), Michelle (Summer 2008). Standing from the left to right: Andy (Summer 2014, Winter 2015), Coryna (Winter 2015), Ryan (Winter 2015), Cynthia (2002-2015), Tiana (Winter 2014), Afsheen (Summer 2013), Aliah (Winter 2014)…and behind every one is Hoku (Summer 2014).

(By Ryan Potter)
With my arrival late last week, it seemed as if the final piece of the puzzle had finally been placed. This, this all is happening.

With just over a week till we arrive on Kure, there is no lack of excitement in finally getting out there. As with any field camp though, the first biggest excitement, or maybe anxiety to some, is meeting your field crew for the first time. It can be a bit daunting to think you’ll be secluded working and living aside 6 other individuals you know no more than their name a week prior to departing for a six month field camp.

Thankfully, this crew, our crew, seems to fit just like a puzzle does. Over a gathering with past Kure crewmembers, we all finally had the chance to meet as a whole. Not only was it our chance to meet our crew, but also was a chance to hear stories, tips, and more than anything, the love each and everyone of the past Kureans have for the island/atoll. They’d all be going back if they could. Suddenly, there was so much more to look forward too. Though I’ve been excited, seeing their passion and smiles about the island seemed to validate the feelings I’ve had inside about how great an experience this will be. Before we have even left, we’ve been welcomed into a unique family and are asked to carry on its legacy. It’s a reminder how fortunate we are to be going where we are going. Please, just get me to Kure already!

The day following our introductions, the group of us was able to have a day to bond over an excursion to Moku’auia (Goat Island) to assist in pulling invasive plants. For some it was there first insight into some of the native Hawaiian flora and for all, a beautiful journey up and around the North Shore. Amongst a days worth of hard work, one thing for sure already is that we’ve got one heck of a crew (see team bio’s below). With unique backgrounds and dynamic personalities, we meshed from the very first moment and it undoubtedly is looking good for this winter season. We’re all excited. We’re all having a good time. We’re all ready to contribute to the conservation efforts at hand. But most of all, we’re ready to make this a journey of a lifetime.

We appreciate you for joining us. Stay tuned for what is to come.

Aloha from the newest crew member,
Ryan Potter

Team Introductions
(by Noël Dunn)

Here are seven short profiles, first impressions and probing Q&A’s to officially introduce the 2015 Kure winter field crew:

Andy has already spent a summer on Kure and seems to be looking forward to discovering the nuance of winter field camp. He is both charismatic and patient as he shows off Oahu, gives the newbies advice and tells stories about his experiences on Kure.
Favorite field camp meal to prepare: My favorite meal to prepare is pizza… lots of pizza.

Coryna just finished studying ecology at Hofstra University. This will be her first major field experience. She is incredibly eloquent and will most likely have a smooth season as she described a few hours of weeding as ‘meditative.’
Most frivolous item packed: colored pencils

Cynthia is the Kure Biological Field Station Supervisor. She is a walking encyclopedia for everything Kure from how and why the bunkhouse was built including the name of the man at the hardware store who helped her purchase the right supplies – to the logic and necessity of the invasive species eradication program. She just as easily sits back to talk story with the new ‘Kureans’ as she calls us, past field staff and colleagues. Her passion for Kure is infectious.
Most random marine debris that you’ve found on the beaches of Kure: I found a sealed stainless steel box the size of a plate lunch box. There is a metal object inside that rattles when the box is shaken. I think it is gold bullion and have vowed not to open it until I retire.

Eryn knows a lot about Kure already, as this will be her third trip out. She has been incredibly engaging and warm in her reception of the new team members. She lights up when describing previous experiences out there and tends to say the Latin names of the plants on Kure as though they are friends.
Name the one item you recommend everyone takes to Kure: comfy after-work pants

Martha has been working in Denali National Park for the last nine years and has previously worked as a neuroscientist and Outward Bound instructor. She is constantly smiling and seems ready for any task. When all of us are hot and sweaty (often) she cools us down with stories of snow and commuting to work on skis while working in backcountry Alaska.
Favorite fact about Alaska: The location of surfbird nesting sites wasn’t discovered in until the middle of the 20th century. Surfbirds nest on the alpine ridges in Denali National Park.

Ryan is coauthoring this blog and is no stranger to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. He has previously worked on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals. He is the ornithologist of the group and always has his eyes pointed skyward. I’m looking forward to learning every bird fact he knows.
Bird most excited to see on Kure: Grey-backed Terns.

Noël – that’s me. My last field site was a small island in the Western Indian Ocean where the entire staff referred to people who get to live on or visit an atoll as ‘incredibly lucky.’ It’s an understatement to say I’m ridiculously excited about this opportunity.
Best advice for living on a remote field site: Name spiders after hot celebrities so you don’t mind sharing your bedroom with them.

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September 5, 2015 – Bon Voyage

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Winter Season 2015/2016 volunteer Martha (from foreground Left) Winter Season 2014/2015 volunteer Tiana, KAC Executive Director Cynthia Vanderlip, and Winter Season 2015/2016 volunteers Eryn, Andy and Noel load buckets onto the Oscar Elton Sette, a NOAA research ship that in addition to conducting research around the Pacific Ocean, transports personnel and supplies to the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.

The Pacific Ocean is hosting a hurricane party. It is the first time three, category four storms exist in one ocean basin at the same time.

The staff currently at Kure has remained on island as they are safe from the high winds. However, many of the field teams that were working on the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were evacuated as a safety precaution.

So far on Oahu the storms have given us a few rainy days, but mostly the storms have created an incredible humidity. The kind of sticky, heavy air that everyone feels compelled to mention in order to excuse his or her sweat.

It’s in this heat that we are moving all of our field kit and the many buckets I keep mentioning from base to the ship that will transport them all the way out to Kure. When you only have the opportunity to restock a field site twice a year, there are an incredible amount of items to pack.

There seems to be an endless amount of buckets to get onto the ship, so we form a chain. As I pass bucket after bucket to Andy, I realize that the repetitive motion and the heat is a lot like the hot yoga sculpt class I took the night before. I can’t decide if the heat and humidity is making our work harder or just into a better calorie burning activity.

Either way, this trip is beginning to feel very, very real. In just over two weeks we fly to Midway, where this ship will meet us and take us the rest of the way to Kure.

Earlier this week, we spent an entire day fitting our oversized gear onto trailers and in truck beds in order to bring it to the ship. This is the second day of loading the boat and the whole process feels like we’re playing a life-size version of Tetris.

There are large plastic guzzlers that four of us end up rotating every possible direction as we double check there are no loitering bugs and figure out the best way to stack them on the trailer and later onto the boat.

There’s an oven that we put together to make sure it works before cocooning it with pillows and bedding. The plywood is swaddled like a baby in tarps to make sure it doesn’t warp. Next to our stacks of field gear, we look like hoarders.

After each full day of moving heavy items, I have very few words. It’s a satisfying but exhausting task. Earlier this week, after overloading the trucks and trailers with as many items as possible, one of the donors to the Kure Atoll Conservancy stopped by to meet the team. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious. It was nice to sit and listen as everyone talked story about how they met and the magnitude of work that has been accomplished on Kure due to this man’s generosity.

Additionally, another winter field crew member arrived in Hawaii. Martha experienced her own mini storm upon arrival as she was whisked away to pack a few buckets with her personal items, checked into her temporary Honolulu lodging and then picked up early in the morning to help us load the ship. She seems to think the whole experience is just as surreal as I do. While we’re driving away from the ship, her face is glued to the window when she says –

‘Yesterday I left Alaska and eleven inches of snow and now I’m at Pearl Harbor. Incredible.’

Aloha,
Noel Dunn

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August 23, 2015 – Packing Buckets

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Winter Season 2015/2016 volunteers (from foreground) Noel, Eryn, and Andy packing supplies into five gallon buckets. Note the Chex box in foreground – all nonessential packaging material is removed to minimize packing volume and avoid transportation/introduction of unnecessary materials to Kure Atoll.

Fly fishermen are brilliant. Andy, Eryn and I are trying on field kit that has arrived in the mail and so far the fly-fishing vests are our favorite items due to the pockets. We’re already choosing which pockets will hold our radios and admiring how different loops and built in cords will help ensure that we don’t lose our GPS’ (a time consuming and unfortunate field mishap).

If someone were to walk in the room right now, I don’t know if they would be more overwhelmed by how good we look or by the current state of the base. There are stacks of buckets tucked in corners and in the middle of the floor. There is a wall of bins with Kure Atoll Only clothes, the tables are overflowing with groceries and random field kit is tucked into any and every spot it will fit.

Just like I used to tell my mom about my messy room, this disorder is very calculated. Only now, that statement is actually true.

The clothes are left from previous field seasons. Kure’s quarantine status means any visitors must wear new clothes or clothes that have only ever been worn on Kure before. This rule helps restrict the introduction of invasive species. The winter field team members will all have a chance to look through the bins and take what fits to use during our time on Kure.

The food has been carefully bought to supplement food stores currently on island and to ensure we have enough food for six months and the field kit will not only aid our work but will also update and replace gear currently on island.

Part of today’s task is to pack all of these items into our 5 gallon buckets. Each bucket is assigned a number, contents are written on the outside, on the lid and on a master list. Each bucket also gets purple flagging tape to indicate that it should be offloaded on Kure. Two additional striped varieties of flagging tape are given if a) the contents are sun-sensitive and/or b) the bucket can be frozen.

A few hours and over 80 packed buckets after we start working, we decide to walk to a nearby cafeteria for lunch, which happens to be in a hospital. As we sit down with our food, a doctor walks by with medical devices looped around her neck, tucked into her belt and more medical kit overflowing in her hands. It looks quite cumbersome.

‘She needs a fly fishing vest,’ says Eryn.

Aloha,
Noel Dunn

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August 16, 2015 – Words of Wisdom

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Winter Season 2015/2016 volunteers (from foreground) Noel, Eryn, and Andy line up at Costco with one of many shopping trips worth of supplies for the six month trip. Planning, shopping and packing for the voyage take a tremendous amount of time and effort. As one Kurean put it… “there’s no stores out there.”

I’ve learned the hard way (read: scared off many men at bars) that the commonplace conversations that take place on a remote project site, don’t transfer well when you re-integrate into city life.

A similar sentiment holds true for going to a field base. City knowledge and habits don’t always transfer well. Which is why I feel fortunate that three members of our winter field team have already been to Kure.

We’re continuing to food shop for our six month trip, which I find intimidating. Normally, I go to the grocery store every two to three days and my typical supermarket experience involves a second ‘oops-I-forgot-the-salsa’ run. But once we’re dropped off on Kure with our provisions – that’s it. No more shopping and no more inviting a friend over to dinner with the classic follow-up text ‘on the way, can you stop by the store for cheese, candy bars and toilet paper?’

As we shop, chop and pack, I’m privileged with a running commentary from my colleagues regarding what works, what doesn’t work and what to expect. It seems there is an innate Kure-ian knowledge that comes from living on this specific base. Here are some of my favorite words of wisdom so far:

‘Don’t freeze the freshly chopped onions next to the ice cream or all of our ice cream will taste of onions for six months.’

‘These salty crackers with lemon-icing filling may taste funny now, but after a few hot hours in the field, you’ll think you’ve never tasted anything so good.’

‘I never eat Spam here. But last season on Kure, I went to town on the Spam. Plus we can use it as bait for ants. Wait, are 14 cans enough?’

After a long day of buying and moving supplies from Costco to the truck and from the truck inside base:

‘Offloading on the island is brutal. It’s a tough few days moving all of the buckets filled with supplies up to the field house and I think a rough introduction for new recruits to Kure.’

This last quote sounds daunting but is actually fairly reassuring after all the food we’ve bought. I’m crossing my fingers that we don’t gain weight, so right now a few days of manual labor sound nice. Of course, I might have very different things to say after moving the
400+ buckets around camp.

Aloha,
Noel Dunn

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August 6, 2015 – Painting Wood

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Today, Andy and I are staining wood for the Laysan ducks that were recently translocated to Kure Atoll. Maybe that sounds funny. We’re taking some lumber with us in order to build another guzzler to collect fresh water for the ducks.

In order to meet the strict quarantine measures for the island, we are staining the wood to fill in gaps where insects tend to hide. Before we leave, the wood will be frozen as a second preventative measure to make sure any insects or possible eggs are killed.

As we paint, I mention to Andy that most people don’t seem to know where Kure Atoll is or even that it is part of the Hawaiian archipelago. Andy has already spent a field season on Kure, which is probably why he seems nonplussed, ‘oh yeah, that’s common.’

As the oldest Hawaiian Island, the story of Kure is closely linked with the formation of the Hawaiian Islands, which are still developing and growing today. Even Hawaiian legends about Pele, the unpredictable volcano goddess, reference the formation of the islands as Pele moves from old islands with dormant volcanoes to the newest ones.

Currently, Pele resides in the crater of Kilauea on the Island of Hawaii. Kilauea has been erupting since 1983 and is continuously spewing out lava which becomes new land as it cools.

The island of Hawaii is currently sitting over what is known as the Hawaiian Hot Spot. It is a location where the Earth’s core is thin and magma or molten lava flows freely to form new volcanoes. This Hot Spot doesn’t move, however the Hawaiian Islands are located within the Pacific Tectonic Plate which does move – at a rate of 5-10 centimeters to the northwest each year.

This hot spot/tectonic plate combination is responsible for forming the Hawaiian Archipelago. As an island moves away from the hotspot, the lava in each volcano eventually dries up and becomes dormant. In addition, the islands start to erode from high intensity waves.

If you look at a map of the Hawaiian Islands, it is easy to see that with an increase in age or distance from the island of Hawaii, the islands decrease in size. There are actually quite a few more islands that are attributed to having been formed by the Hawaiian Hot spot and are now submerged that exist past Kure Atoll. This extended chain of islands is referred to as the Emperor Seamount.

If any readers want to get extra geeky and read more about the formation of the islands, check out www.soest.hawaii.edu. This website has some great graphs, more details and is where I double checked my facts.

Aloha,
Noel Dunn

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July 16, 2015 – Buckets of Fun

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Winter Season 2015/2016 volunteers (from foreground) Eryn, Andy and Noel awash in buckets. The five gallon bucket (with lid) is the primary container of choice for packing and transporting virtually everything from t-shirts to canned tuna, granola to GPS. The first ever Kure blog below records Noel Dunn’s musings as the volunteers clean buckets prior to packing for the Winter Season voyage.

As I power wash a dead spider and her eggs out from under the lip of a bucket, I silently apologize that they aren’t invited on our trip. In two months, a team of six, including myself, is headed to Kure Atoll.

Kure Atoll.

I can’t even say the words without a sense of awe.

Kure is the northern most coral atoll in the world and the most remote of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It is located 28 degrees north of the equator and 100 miles east of the International Date Line.

Kure is a stopping ground for hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds and breeding grounds for the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. Soon, it’ll be my home.

In my free time, I keep google-imaging pictures of Kure. It looks like a textbook definition of an atoll with an almost perfect circle of coral reef encircling a lagoon and an island.

The island has strict quarantine measures, a testament to the work being conducted there. Invasive species removal is a current priority, which means stragglers in the form of seeds, eggs, insects and lizards are unwelcome.

Today, that also means we’re power washing a couple hundred buckets that will serve as our suitcases. Aside from evicting any unwanted guests, I’m also using Goo Gone to wipe off notes describing what the buckets held for previous field teams – including food provisions.

To be honest, I assumed we would be eating rice and beans for three meals a day for six months. I’m pleasantly surprised to read labels describing a wide variety of food items including some luxuries like popcorn and chocolate chips.

If I was already excited about the winter field season on Kure, I’m even more excited after a day of preparations. Of course, finding out that I can eat a chocolate chip cookie after a hard day in the field is even more of a reason to celebrate.

Aloha,
Noel Dunn