At 5 am Monday morning, we set off under cover of darkness to travel across 60 miles of open ocean on a 26 ft boat to reach the remote Polynesian island of Maiao.
To give you the inside scoop on this expedition, Maiao is the second of three islands that we are surveying for vermetids—small snails that live on top of corals and are linked to coral die off (see previous post). In this study, we aim to see whether the densities of vermetids differ among reefs that surround three different islands, with hopes to better understand what is causing vermetid populations to flourish and, in turn, kill off corals. Some data suggest that vermetids may thrive under high nutrient conditions, due to higher food availability. Because human development leads to nutrient pollution, it is possible that human population density is the key to vermetid outbreaks that have recently plagued areas of French Polynesia. As such, the three islands we will survey are subjected to a range of human development, from high: Tahiti, medium: Moorea, and finally low (Maiao). Maiao is inhabited by less than 300 people.
Shortly before arriving at Maiao, we realized that we didn’t have enough fuel to complete the trip back home to Moorea, which was planned for the end of the afternoon. Our captain, Jacques, came up with the McGyver-like contingency plan to have another station boat (this one even smaller) meet us halfway on the return to bring us more fuel–that is, wherever our boat ran out of fuel somewhere between the two islands. This was unsettling for the group, but we saw no alternatives aside from sleeping on Maiao, which would make us lose a day of field work. So, we went along with it, hoping for the best…
When we arrived at Maiao, we were greeted by an unexpected procession. The Mayor of the island, along with some of his family, met us at the one dock (and the one sign of human settlement) on the island’s perimeter. They seemed very excited to see us–men, women, children—a little over a dozen in all. Some of them were especially interested in checking out our scuba gear on our boat. They also brought an impressive brunch, which they setup with some patio furniture. Tuna steaks, fa fa snails (snail salad), fresh coconut milk, tea and firi firi (donut-like pastries) were served in Tahitian portions (large piles). We were happy to oblige and put an impressive dent in the food pile before thanking our generous hosts profusely, grabbing a quick photo with the mayor to commemorate the unique encounter (below), and heading off into the rising sun to collect some data!
Our work went pretty smoothely, aside from a challenging tidal surge and a kamikaze-like swim into the reef lagoon over the reef crest, which almost claimed our lives (the reef crest is the part of the reef where the waves break–BIG waves in some cases–an important protective service that reefs provide to coastlines around the world). Interestingly, the reef, as well as the vermetid population, seemed to exhibit some clear differences to Moorea, which could yield some interesting results at the conclusion of our study. We sampled from the perimeter of the entire island, which made for some cool sights—the island appeared completely untouched from the reef’s edge and from the shore.
Just before calling an end to our work day and making the arduous, journey back to Moorea, which included the super-risky fuel exchange, we received a call from the Mayor offering us fuel to complete our return. Thank goodness! We obviously took him up on the thoughtful offer, and once fueled, headed off into the sunset with some nice data and an unforgettable memory.
Next on the island-hopping list: Tahiti. Stay tuned…