As I write these lines, we are flying on a small plane bound to Honolulu. Our expedition to Kingman is finished. Most of our team is sleeping, reading, or listening to music in the only introvert environment of the last three weeks. The silence of the return flight contrasts with our excitement three weeks ago, when we were filled with anticipation. Today we are filled with experience and memories.
We just came back from our third dive. The sea was so flat that, if it hadn't been for little Isla Maxima, we would never have known we were on an atoll. The breakers were absent. All we could see was a spectrum of blues, the sky merging with the sea.
We were especially happy today. We have finished all of our data collecting, accomplishing more than we expected at the beginning of the expedition.
Last night was rocky; the Searcher swung with the swell all night long. That made us especially eager to jump in the water and dive a hundred feet below the surface, where the swell is barely discernible. We are tired after eighteen full days of diving, and waking up in the morning is increasingly difficult; but there is something that keeps us going. It is the realization that we cannot waste a minute in this unique atoll. Laziness and idleness are alien words here, and we don't have enough hours to dive as much as we would like. The mere thought of meeting the sharks again, or hovering over a coral infinity, triggers our adrenaline.
Bliss. I think that's the best word to describe our feelings. Nature surprised us again, and made us fall in love with her more deeply.
We dived at 100 feet on the unexplored Western terrace of Kingman. This was our first day of exploration without data collection. From the boat we could see small light patches of sand. These were the only parts of the bottom that were not covered by live coral. As we were descending we saw what looked like clouds of colorful mosquitoes buzzing frantically over the reef. They were fusiliers: blue and yellow; purple, silver and black. Sharks joined the scene within a minute; a couple, five, ten, and finally 25. Red snappers, which always want to be part of the action, joined the sharks by the dozens. As far as we know, these fishes had never seen humans before. I guess they could be called naive fish.
A galaxy of hard corals. From my first dive here in Kingman Reef to my most recent (about an hour ago), this is the best way to describe this incredible place. After 15 consecutive days in the water (perhaps 50 plus hours), I still cannot believe the pristine condition of these corals. Vibrant colors of pink, lavender, and green abound in every direction. As of yet, I have not seen sand, as the entire bottom is covered entirely with corals. While there are not the massive fish schools typically associated with healthy reefs (reef fish stocks here are thinned by large number of predators), my senses are overloaded with color and texture in these incredibly rich seascapes.
Tyler Rowe and I camped on Isla Maxima, the small island on the eastern arm of Kingman, last night. We wanted to experience the isolation of an ocean dot made of coral rubble and giant clamshells. The moon rose as the sun set in the opposite corner of the sky. Two large spotted eagle rays hovered over a reef colored with pink coralline algae. A dozen brown boobies glided over the water, up and down, back and forth, as if on an endless aerial rollercoaster.
The Kingman reef ecosystem is a complex living machine composed of many thousands of species, which are linked by relationships of different natures. Some organisms, such as corals, create habitat for others; others, such as sea cucumbers, work as garbage cleaners processing debris. But nothing characterizes better the struggle for existence than the relationship between predator and prey. Predation is a rather unfair relationship in which there is always a winner-and a loser. So engrained is it in our perception of nature, that students of linkages between species in an ecosystem have consistently worked on food webs and often ignored most other kinds of relationships.
Yesterday I wrote in my journal about how easy it is to get accustomed to something extraordinary.
A room warden at the Prado Museum will probably not be as excited at the sight of a masterpiece by Velazquez as a tourist will. Likewise, after 10 days of diving at Kingman we appear to be used to seeing sharks, dozens of large red snappers, and healthy corals on every dive. We have seen between five and 24 sharks on every single dive. It would take years of diving in the Caribbean to see as many sharks–without feeding, of course.
Two years ago, during our previous Line Islands Expedition, reef vampires attacked us. They were silver and red, but had the ability to change their color at will, to tones of orange, rust, and white. They had two, sometimes three or four sharp canines, which looked like old ivory, prominently displayed outside their mouths. Their faces had a permanent frown, and their big eyes had a jet-black iris, surrounded by a ring of golden honey.
They were everywhere, swimming frantically over the bottom, and hovering in the water column between our boat and us. It seemed they pretended to intercept us on our way to the surface. Before visiting the Line Islands we were concerned about sharks, but as we started diving at Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef, we became increasingly afraid of the vampires.
What did strike us the most was their biting taste. Unlike Dracula and other Transylvanian creatures that belong to our collective imaginary, these vampires did not bite our necks or suck our blood. Instead, and to our astonishment, they bit ponytails, ears, foreheads, diving reels, strobes, and cameras. When they came close and saw themselves reflected on the domes of our camera housings, they kept charging the domes.
The vampires were red snappers, Lutjanus bohar. Their size ranged from just a few inches to two and a half feet, and the large ones were not particularly more dangerous. They are the second most important predator at Kingman, second only to sharks, and by far the most curious fishes we have encountered. Red snappers do not hesitate to check if we taste good.
This afternoon it happened again. I almost drowned in laughter underwater after Brian Skerry showed me a clean bite on his ear. He was virtually immobile, taking photographs of a small fish inside a coral head, when a red snapper charged him. His ear is now punctuated by a couple of small, bright red cuts. Curiously, in 2005 the only person to be bitten on the ear was our underwater photographer, Zafer Kizilkaya. I wonder whether photographers have particularly tasty earlobes.
I also had a camera, but could not fool them. They must have known all along that I am just a marine ecologist.
Today we had another calm day in paradise. The first thing I do every morning when I climb the stairs from my stateroom to the galley of the Searcher is to look out. After a soft “good morning” to the few souls sipping their coffee in silence, I step outside. It is bright, and I am obliged to squint. After a few seconds, my sight travels instinctively to the reef crest, hoping for as few breakers as possible. Today is one of those lucky days when the reef crest is difficult to find, and I awake instantly with excitement. We will dive on the fore reef, outside of the coral ring. The fore reef is the section of the atoll with the greatest fish biomass, hence sharks.
We conduct two dives in the morning, at 20 and five meters deep respectively. It takes us about five minutes to travel from the Searcher to La Paloma pass, and about fifteen more minutes to move around the apex of the atoll and reach our sampling site. The crew of the Searcher takes turns taking us diving and tending the boats. Our skipper this morning was Jon Littenberg, the captain of the Searcher.
Jon’s story is, as typical of those people who have dream jobs, serendipitous. He and his family had a smaller boat in Hawaii, and decided to help some local researchers with it. They liked it so much that they decided to purchase a bigger boat and make supporting scientific research a way of life. They purchased the Searcher, which was formerly a private yacht. We are very happy with the former life of the Searcher, because it provides much more comfortable conditions than we scientists are used to.
While we were counting fishes this morning I looked to my side and saw Jon near the bottom, taking photos of large, black pencil sea urchins, whose spines were, not surprisingly, the size of pencils. I was diving with tanks, but Jon was snorkeling. He is a strong free diver, and I have seen him next to us several times before. When I am scuba diving and he is free diving I am jealous, and feel he is closer to the fish than I am.
After the morning dives, Jon told me that “it is good to know that places like Kingman still exist. Most people don’t realize how unique and fragile these places are.”
I could not agree more. In 2005, when I flew back to California after five wonderful days at Kingman, I realized how rare places like Kingman are. My plane was about to land in Los Angeles, and all I could see were lights, millions of lights, embedded in an invisible matrix of concrete. I wondered how much larger than Kingman our cities are. If we dropped Kingman in Los Angeles, we could spend a week driving around and never find it. We have too many big cities, but how many Kingmans do we have?