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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2004

Crew sets sail for Laysan

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

TERN ISLAND, French Frigate Shoals — It starts with the green clouds, and as you get closer to this 22-mile-long reef complex, the amazements just keep coming.

Overhead are hundreds of thousands of wheeling birds; on the beaches, green sea turtles not much smaller than a Volkswagen and Hawaiian monk seals bigger than NFL linemen.

In the water, the wildlife all seems oversized by main Hawaiian Islands standards. Big scarred ulua, huge nenue, whitetip sharks, tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks.

The waterline on La Perouse Pinnacle could have been painted by Van Gogh, with vibrant blasts of colors — yellows, lavenders, greens, reds and more. The algae are so rich because they are fertilized by the guano that whitens the top of the pinnacle and seeps down the sides when it rains, said Hokule'a crewman Randy Kosaki, a marine biologist with the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

The crew of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a sailed up to French Frigate Shoals Thursday and stayed two nights before leaving yesterday morning for a 2 1/2-day sail to Laysan Island. Continuing east winds and swells prompted Captain Nainoa Thompson to bypass Gardner Pinnacles. He said the downswell sail from Gardner to Laysan would be too hard on the canoe and crew.

The crew spotted the green clouds over the reef immediately. They are known in the South Pacific as a tool for native navigators. Long before you spot an atoll, you can often pick up the green of the atoll's waters reflected against the clouds.

And it's a surreal thing at French Frigate Shoals. In the distance are your standard gray and white clouds, and nearby, the clouds are distinctly, unmistakably green to the naked eye. Seen through Polaroid sunglasses, they positively glow.

The white undersides of birds flying over the lagoon also turn green.

On Friday, the crews of Hokule'a and the escort motorsailer Kama Hele helped with a sea bird protection project on Tern, hauling sheets of steel plate to cap a 60-year-old rusting seawall that was trapping young sea birds. The still-flightless chicks would waddle to the edge and fall between sheets of flaking steel — often injuring themselves.

The canoe and escort crews were amazed at the wildlife. Crew members dove at La Perouse Pinnacle, where they swam with 6-foot white-tip sharks, a passing seal, a turtle nearly a yard across and a large very black white ulua.

"They turn black when they're angry or aggressive," Kosaki said.

Coral reef researcher and crew member Kanako Uchino, from Japan, said the ulua surprised her.

"It doesn't look like he's scared. He just come close to me, and swing around me and constantly coming back to me — like he was checking us out instead of us checking him out," Uchino said.

Sailing master Bruce Blankenfeld said that's what was special about the French Frigate Shoals wildlife. "The wildlife, they're at home there. They're comfortable. They're unthreatened.

"I was impressed by the sheer numbers of birds. They are an integral part of this planet, this ocean planet, and the health of the planet depends on the ocean. I've never seen that kind of numbers. It gives you a good feeling to see that kind of abundance," Blankenfeld said.

Marine researchers from a variety of agencies participate in research at French Frigate Shoals, working out of an old Coast Guard facility on Tern, the largest of the reef's islands.

Researchers collect all kinds of data, from shark-attack scars on seals to assessments of their scat and spew, said Suzanne Canja, a Maui resident who is the field camp leader for the monk seal team of NOAA Fisheries, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Almost every adult seal has shark scars," said Dan Luers, a marine biologist from Ohio in his third season at Tern.

In 1997, there was a persistent problem of male seals "mobbing" or attacking females and pups. Many pups died, and Galapagos sharks started feeding on them around Trig Island. Since then, Galapagos sharks have been returning annually to eat seals during the pupping season.

That's just one of the problems seals face. Some estimates are that there were as many as 2,500 Hawaiian monk seals in the 1950s, but the population declined to about 1,300, despite massive research for more than a decade.

Some researchers believe that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a source of other marine life in the main islands as well, that larvae from the abundant marine life here help resupply Hawai'i's depleted reefs.

"There is a very nice hopeful spirit, to be next to the extraordinarily diverse abundance of life," Thompson said.

The double-hulled canoe's mission, in part, is to bring home to the people of Hawai'i the possibilities of a healthy environment, the kind found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"That sense of wildness makes me feel better, makes me feel hopeful," Thompson said.

• • •

Canoe turns back

Hokule'a turned back toward Tern Island last night because of an injured crewmember. The voyaging canoe was being towed back to French Frigate Shoals because the wind was against it.

The crewmember fell against a wooden railing and suffered a back injury.

Dr. Cherie Shehata said that it was not an emergency situation, but that the crewmember — who asked not to be identified — needed medical attention that was available on Tern Island.

Hokule'a was about 60 miles out when it turned back. It was not known what effect the situation would have on the remainder of the voyage.