Week 8 – Everything Happens Part I

Wow, everything that could happen this week, has happened. So much has happened, it requires two updates. On Island I have been trying to write my updates between Wednesday and Friday so that I can be sure they are received in time to be posted to the internet on Sunday. So much happened over the weekend that I started writing on Monday, so I wouldn’t forget, but then more stuff kept happening throughout the week. This first update is just the weekend.

It all started on Friday with a semi-minor incident while planting Capparis sandwichiana (a native plant we are working on bringing back) in front of camp. We found a Laysan Finch very recently dead; we were working with a broken neck and entrails spilling out of its cloaca. Clearly dead from heavy trauma, it appeared one of us had stepped on it, but none of us knew who. This counted as a “take” – when we unintentionally kill an animal through our work, usually as a broken egg.

Most of Saturday went smoothly, camp maintenance in the morning, relaxation in the afternoon, and pizza for dinner! However, bad luck started to rear its ugly head as clean-up began. Our crew leader’s cheek was beginning to swell up a little bit that evening. Shortly before I had arrived in Hawaii, she had gotten her wisdom teeth removed with minimal complications, but now it looked like something could be acting up, so she called the medic line as the rest of us relaxed, expecting it to be no problem. Just as we were settling in to bake some cookies, make bagel dough, and watch Freaks and Geeks, though, we were informed that there was a Tsunami heading for us. Around 2000h our time, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake had occurred around Queen Charlotte Island, Canada, that would send a wave of unknown size towards the Hawaiian Islands.

A Tsunami warning sends into effect a lot of quick preparation work – we had to make sure we had a lot of freshwater available in camp (all of those five gallon jugs we had on the beach), collect, charge, and pack all of the communications equipment (radios, computers, satellite phones, and GPS units), pull together some personal gear for sitting in a life raft for a while, grab the emergency buckets of signaling devices and MREs from the hurricane shelter, turn off propane, see if we could disconnect the solar panels, and move the life raft from the hurricane shelter until it was at least 30’ from anything so that it could deploy safely if needed. With everything assembled, and our crew leader calling Honolulu every fifteen minutes to see what was going on, all we had to do was sit, wait, and watch the water. We learned that the wave was expected to hit Oahu around 2230h and us shortly after. We learned that when it did hit, there were tidal changes of ~5’ and waves every 12 minutes or so. Fortunately, we were not told to deploy the raft. So we waited. And waited. And saw nothing. Our bay (admittedly on the west side of the island, away from where the wave was headed) showed no change. It was a lovely night, so we got to look at stars, but we were kept up until 0130h for something that proved to not be any problem at all. Mildly disappointing. If I’m going to prepare for a Tsunami, I want to see something. (On the plus side, I can add Tsunami to the list of environmental disasters I’ve survived, including tornado, earthquake, hurricane, and mold epidemic.)

Sunday morning was a delightfully slow one as we recovered from our very late night (we’re usually not up past 2200h). One by one, we rolled into the kitchen tent, where we tend to hang out. I actually made my bagel dough and eventually sesame seed bagels, which turned out deliciously. For the afternoon, I went for a walk around the island (it takes about three hours, depending on how leisurely you take/how much you look at). I saw the expanse of the north and east desert, fields of marine debris (primarily old bottles and buoys) along the north coast, the ferociousness of the surf on the windward side of the island, the very interesting rock and fringing reef formations around the east and south sides (including “the swimming pool”, “the sidewalk”, and “the Jacuzzi”, all of which I’m sure will be elaborated upon in future entries), a handful of Black-Footed Albatrosses (which we’ll be studying, along with Laysan Albatrosses, this winter), and, unfortunately, a very dead seal. Back in camp, I discovered that our crew leader’s oral situation had not appeased itself, requiring her to continue to call the health line and take antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, and that the first Laysan Albatrosses had appeared on island, by the lake.

When I eventually mentioned that I had encountered a dead seal on my walk, however, it was time for another adventure. The NMFS (seal people) have had their funding cut over the past few years and are unable to have as significant a presence on island as they would like to, which means they ask us to pick up some (too much) slack for them, including seal necropsies. They want us to send as much information (and tissue) back to them as possible. So, three of us went out to the seal to see what we could learn about it as the sun was going down. When I found it again, in the dark, we quickly realized that it was WAY too far decomposed to necropsy, or, really, even touch. It was bloated so that you could no longer see its face. All of its fur had fallen off of the skin. There were ghost crabs all around it, enjoying the bounteous buffet that was presented to them by nature. It was really no more than a seal-skin balloon filled, presumably, with a viscera, maggot, and bone soup which had been cooked by sun for an unknown number of days. And it smelled like it. To top it all off, it was an untagged adult female – meaning the NMFS people would really want to know as much about it as possible. All of the seals from Laysan are tagged, so she must have come from a neighboring island, and females are generally considered slightly more important to reproductive success than males. This extensive decomposition, though, saved (prevented) us from having (getting) to perform a necropsy, which is an exceptionally intensive process which could take at least five hours. Instead, we documented the corpse, with GPS and photographs, and e-mailed the seal people as much as we had learned. Back at camp we promptly went to sleep.

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