Weeks 4, 5, and 6 – Ruined plans can have fantastic outcomes

Sorry this took so long to update everybody, but, as the title implies, not everything worked out how we had initially planned. We were supposed to be dropped off at Laysan on the ninth, but when we got to the bay, the swells were much too larger to get either of the landing crafts in safely with supplies or people. And by “much too large” I really mean fifteen to twenty feet. We tried to get in as close as we could to see just how bad it was… and it was bad – like riding a roller coaster with significant free fall after cresting each wave. So, because of that I got to see way more of the Northwestern Hawaiian Island chain than I had expected to, and that was absolutely amazing and I feel very lucky for having gotten to do so.
Anyway, allow me to back up and cover what I’ve missed. In the week leading up to our departure up the chain, we did a lot of final preparations – loading pallets and pallet tubs, putting those on trucks, taking those trucks to the boat, and then putting the pallets and pallet tubs on the boat. We took care of our needs for our “lasts” (last meal, last internets, last hot shower, etc…). (As it turned out, they would not be our lasts, but it was a mental thing.) On Wednesday night we watched the Presidential debate and had a big delicious barbeque with chicken parts, vegetables, and ribs. It was an exciting, effective week to get ready to be gone for a while. Then, on Thursday night, those of us riding the Kahana (the name of the transport vessel taking us) got on and said goodbye to the civilized world. A few others would be catching a plane to Midway where they would be brought back from to their respective islands.

The first couple days on the boat were uneventful. The crew was slowly starting to figure us out, as we did they. Us passengers were adjusting to sea life, some more efficiently and effectively than others. The seas were gloriously calm, especially for October, which we were all very grateful for (especially once we had seen the swells at Laysan a couple days later). Additionally, the crew of the Kahana are just the bunch of seamen (and woman) that we would want transporting us across the open ocean. They great at their jobs (captaining, engineering, first mating, deck handing, and cooking) and they have terrific personalities to boot. Lots of fun to be around, they speak their minds unabashedly, and bring great conversations, whether it be in the galley, the wheel house, or on deck.

After two days at sea, we arrived at French Frigate Shoals and Tern Island to drop off one crew and their gear (including two giant water containers, which were thankfully currently empty). Because it was an Atoll, the inside was very calm, which made it easy to load things into the Alewa (the larger of the two landing crafts on the Kahana), which meant fewer and easier trips to shore. Tern Island is not quarantined, so those of us continuing on to Laysan were able to get on the island with ease to look around the densest bird population in the NWHI chain, help unpack several pallet tubs full of food, and go for a quick swim. Tern Island is a landing strip with a couple buildings, and not much more. It is less than 40 acres in size. Laysan’s lake is five times that. The bushes along the edges of the landing strip are all covered in birds, mostly Frigate birds, Boobies (Red-footed, Masked, and Brown), Brown and Black Noddy’s, and white terns. Here and there you see some Sooty Terns and Red-tailed Tropic Birds, too. Hoping around on the ground, there are several Pacific Golden Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings. It is a dense bird colony, and it smells like it. Getting on land again, it is very exciting to see many of the birds we have seen from the boat over the past couple days (and will continue to see).

Leaving Tern, nothing much of interest happens on the Kahana for the next four days besides discovering that we will not be getting off at Laysan, as we anticipated, and instead we will be continuing up the chain. First, to Midway, and then a few of us will be lucky enough to visit Kure Atoll – the last island in the chain. Throughout our time at sea, we have seen all of the birds that I listed above, plus Wedge-Tailed and Christmas Shearwaters, Petrels (Bonin, Mottled, and some others), Band-Rumped Storm-Petrels, Spinner dolphins, Galapagos sharks, and a whale, probably humpbacked, which was nice enough to show us its fluke. Just absolutely amazing.

Midway… now that is a place all its own. We got to spend two nights docked in Midway while on the Kahana because we had to skip Laysan. There we perused the island, checking out all of its sites by bike in half of a day. We got to feed fledgling White Terns which had lost their nests when the trees had been cut down. We saw monk seals and turtles on the beaches, relaxing in the sun. We even got to visit Eastern Island, where a lot of restoration work is being done, to see what they had accomplished. Then, at night, with the Kahana crew and a fair percentage of the Island’s residents (there are 70 living there now, and that is more than normal…) we became patrons of the lone bar on the island. Fortunately for us, it is apparently only really a place of interest when the Kahana is in town, which meant that good times were had by all.

When we left for Kure Atoll on the second morning, we go to set out lines to try to catch fresh fish! (Within twelve miles of Midway Atoll, subsistence fishing is permitted. It is the only place it is allowed in the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument/NWHI chain.) Fishing on the Kahana is not like any fishing that I have ever done before. Squid-like lures with large hooks are attached to metal leaders, which are attached to Cassimar rope (like parachute cord) which is 800lb-test. These ropes are merely tied to the back of the boat and a-trolling we do go. That morning, the crew managed to pull in a small Rainbow fish and a ~25lb Ono (which made for absolutely delicious sashimi and fish tacos). At Kure the next morning, we helped move the new supplies and people onto the island, and anything that was no longer useful and the old people off. This required a long small boat journey from the Kahana to shore, and we fortunately were able to use the Alewa, so only two trips were needed. On shore, we also got to take a quick look at their camp to see how it was set up and what the island looked like. They have a lot of Bermuda grass (invasive, it will have to go eventually), so the interior of the island looks very lawn-like. Through the atoll’s lagoon and just outside the reef, we saw pods of spinner dolphins several times, and a few of the dolphins were even nice enough to spin for us! Back on the Kahana, we experienced brief challenges getting the Alewa back onto the ship (control was lost of the manned lines and the crane), but the crew managed to get it on without any injuries and only one damaged container.

The next morning we stopped in Midway harbor briefly to exchange passengers for the remainder of the Kahana’s trip back towards Honolulu and headed out. We had 48 hours to make the 36 hour trip to Laysan, so we got to spend the morning fishing around Midway! Fortune was on our side that morning. In about four hours of fishing we managed to pull in three 18-24” Black Skipjacks (Cava cava), three 18-24” Yellowfin Tuna (Ahi), and, to top it all off, three 3-4’ Ahi. That was awesome. And, because we knew the crew so well by this point (eleven days on a ship together will do that), we got to participate in the fishing, which was a wild experience. Hauling line in by hand feels way cooler than using a rod and reel. The Ahi made for some absolutely amazing sashimi over multiple meals and a delicious bowl of poke (raw fish mixed with some kind of dressing, often Hawaiian salt, shoyu, onions, seaweed, something a little spicy – it can by really tasty).

Finally, by Tuesday, after spending thirteen days on the Kahana, seeing way more of the Pacific Islands than almost anyone in the world will get to (and even know about) it was time for me to arrive at Laysan for a sixth month tour. As at the other islands we visited, this was a day of moving stuff. All of the stuff. Our crew brought over 400 five gallon buckets to Laysan, plus about ten action packers, a 55 gallon drum, six 100 lbs. propane tanks, four coolers, a dozen fire extinguishers, and shovels. Not to mention the supplies for the water catchment project which was supposed to happen during the overlap (which was missed because the Kahana could not land the first time), which we brought on island anyway so they would be here when it could be done – eight 6’ tall by 4’ diameter water tanks, all kinds of pumps and pipes and tubing, plus associated tools and materials, plastic sheeting, lumber, and more. Additionally, we had about 70 five gallon water jugs to bring onto the Kahana, fill, and send back to land to fill additional 55 gallon drums as emergency water. Additionally, as things were being sent ashore, trash, broken things, empty buckets, and personal gear was be sent back onto the boat to return to Honolulu. As you might imagine, it was not an insignificant task – loading everything onto the small boat, off of the small boat, and carrying it a little ways up the beach, then putting stuff into the small boat, loading it onto the Kahana, and storing it away. Plus, we only had the smaller of the two landing craft available, requiring at least eight trips, I can’t even remember at this point. I have to thank the Kahana crew for all of their hard work, getting all over our things on shore safely, with only the appropriate, loveable amount of grumbling that we had come to expect from them. We then said good bye to the old crew and set about getting all of our freshly acquired supplies as far from the surf as possible in the hours remaining in the day (and by day, I mean we worked past dark-thirty).

Laysan is really cool. One of things that makes it really cool is that I know I am just going to become more and more attached to it over the next six months as I learn about its many aviary and herbaceous residents and as I do my little part to help restore it to its natural biological state. What is most amusing about it so far is that the birds have basically no regard for your presence near them. Many will sit in our paths and not move as we step over them. There is a brown Noddy that lives on my stoop which will only move a foot or so away if start to invade its personal space, about six inches in radius on a touchy day. To be fair, (s)he probably thinks the stoop belongs to him/her. The scenery is gorgeous, especially when the petrels come back at night to their burrows and a cloud of birds forms over most of the island. Additionally, definitely in the top three views I’ve had from a toilet in my life (all pit toilets, mind you); here we call it the “Lua”. The people are all wonderful, fun, and caring individuals. The only annoying aspect are the flies, which are extremely thankfully down from what they are like in the summer – I would hate to imagine what that must be like.

Well, I hope that makes up for two missed weeks. Next week you can start to learn about what I get to do out here!

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