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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Scientist has a fish tale, with a twist

 •  Reader e-mails are answered

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Coral researcher Michael Stat shows off the hand that was bitten by a 3-foot ulua as he collected coral samples at French Frigate Shoals.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Editor's note: Advertiser science writer Jan TenBruggencate is accompanying the scientific expedition of the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. He is sending regular reports and photos via satellite.

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Wildlife veterinarian Thierry Work points out a tumor on a reef fish caught at French Frigate Shoals.

JAN TENBRUGGENCATE | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Michael Stat was focused on taking a sample of lace coral at French Frigate Shoals when a 3-foot ulua came by and took most of his hand into its mouth.

"I think it was the yellow tabs on the sample bags I had on my wrist," he said.

Stat said the big predator seemed to let go as he pulled his hand out, leaving two bloody gashes along his thumb and a wide scrape across the top of his hand.

The ulua had a buddy of similar size.

"Him and his friend were very interested in what I was doing," Stat said. Later, they were seen biting at a yellow hammer.

Researchers on this mission know of no scientific proof of an association between the color yellow and ulua attacks, but Stat is thinking of changing the color scheme he uses on his next scientific adventure.

The unexpected encounter was just another twist in the scientists' mission here to study marine life off the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and Johnston Atoll.

One week into its research trip, you quickly learn there's always something going on no matter how far out to sea you go or how rough the water is.

You also quickly find this is a trip filled with interesting characters and research.

Because of a window of good weather, the ship altered its schedule and made an overnight run to Gardner Pinnacles on Tuesday night, arriving off the rugged rocks yesterday morning.

As the ship made the overnight transit to Gardner, scientists worked into the night with the samples collected during the day at the shoals.

Autopsies on fish were being done at the stern end of the ship's 01 deck. Biologist Thierry Work had a school of dead yellowtail goatfish, from which he was taking and preserving samples of skeletal muscle, gills, liver, spleen, intestines, heart, kidney and those feelers goatfish have, called barbules.

Work said he is interested in the parasites these native fishes carry. They swim with introduced taape, which have some similar parasites.

Work said he wants to know if the parasites spread from one fish to the other, and hopes the visit to Johnston Atoll will provide a clue. Johnston has the goatfish, but no taape.

After every dive, four or five researchers crowd into the wet lab to stabilize the materials they've brought back from the reef. Some of the work isn't so delicate. One evening, Iliana Baums was working with a hammer and cold chisel on a concrete block, cracking coral samples into pieces small enough for the vials they brought along.

Many of the biologists are also amateur photographers, and some are professionals. Luiz Rocha, a Brazilian fish expert, has a diving photography rig that looks like something out of the space program, with two wide arms bearing flash units, and a gray housing as big as a car battery. The internal camera's view of the outside world is through a wide glass dome the size of half a volleyball.

By the end of each evening, some of the best photographs had been loaded onto one of the many computers in the dry lab, and were displayed as an endless slide show of divers, corals, colorful reef fishes, big predators, boats, different corals and more.

The Hi'ialakai has a library of movies from the U.S. Navy Motion Picture Service and on most nights two of them are shown on the ship's video system. On another channel of the system, anyone can view images from cameras that keep track of the ship's exterior spaces.

Up on the bridge, the officer on duty has control over many of these cameras. For example, when the ship launches and retrieves its boats, the bridge does not have an eyeball view of activities, but can focus a camera on what's going on to determine the best course of action, if any.

A ship's store opens each evening for an hour or so. It sells T-shirts, soft drinks, candy bars, sunscreen, mouthwash and a few other essentials. A tiny but functional exercise room has a recumbent bike, elliptical trainer and rowing machine as well as a few free weights.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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