The Great Pacific Surf & Climate Expedition

21 Apr 2016 4 Share

Zoot bails for desolate barrels on the families last crossing

Zoot bails for desolate barrels on the families last crossing

COASTALWATCH | Pacific Climate Expedition  

Ruth Tedder is Captain of Blue Healer 1, the vessel hosting the Pacific Climate Expedition. A sailing family’s journey through the South Pacific observing the effects of climate change on oceans health, people and places. The boat under the guidance of Ruth and her crew including husband Dr. Karl Mallon, two sons Django & Zoot and some experienced sea masters will be visiting some of the world's most remote surf breaks and posting footage as they travel and experience some epic waves, local music, and traditional culture.

This is the documentation from a crew of family, scientists, artists and students with a common love of the ocean and a wish to explore, contribute, collaborate and create new links.

SEE ALSO: ANZAC Weekend Surf Forecast

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Can climate scientists possibly froth? You better believe it.

We were all frothing in the meeting room at University Technology Sydney last Friday, where we met with Dr. David Suggett and Dr. Emma Camp, coral scientists at the Climate Change Cluster research group there.

Recently returned from New Caledonia, on the cusp of leaving for Seychelles, David and Emma were running on sleep deprivation and coffee, and were totally excited about recent attention in the media for their work in relation to coral bleaching and the recent ‘Godzilla El Nino’ event passing through the South Pacific.

Their work focuses on the characteristics of ecologies of resilient coral, that is, coral thriving in extreme environments of higher acidity and warmer waters (which typically kills them). Particularly, David and Emma are excited to learn more about the role of mangroves and sea-grass ecologies in their symbiotic role with well-adapted coral. If acidity and rising temperatures from climate change are killing the reef, these “extreme environment corals” maybe the next evolution.

The Climate Change Cluster brings together leading scientists in plant, functional biology, and climate change, in a brand new and highly resourced facility on the UTS campus. Over the past 10-years, the Centre’s research has created a high-level body of work focusing on some of earth’s most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial. An intern working with Karl on an infrastructure project studied under David Suggett, and when he overheard our plans for the expedition he suggested we might have something to talk about.

We started the conversation with David about 2 months ago. Karl and David met and discussed the various elements of the Pacific Climate Expedition and their respective work on climate change (Karl works on risks to infrastructure). By the time we met last week, things had evolved substantially. Australian marine scientists have recently observed widespread bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef and the strongest El Nino recorded has just pushed the hottest bolt of water ever seen through the Pacific. David was seeing a whole new opportunity in our upcoming voyage.

“A ship of opportunity.” He said, so grandly. My ears pricked up.

SEE ALSO: Requiem For The Reef

Projections from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show the retreat of El Nino induced warmer waters between the end of April (top) and end of June (bottom) this year.    Pacific Climate Expedition will sail slowly westwards from 140W (in the middle of the darkest red), following the footsteps of the retreating hot water, recording its impacts.

Projections from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show the retreat of El Nino induced warmer waters between the end of April (top) and end of June (bottom) this year. Pacific Climate Expedition will sail slowly westwards from 140W (in the middle of the darkest red), following the footsteps of the retreating hot water, recording its impacts.

The opportunity is that we will be tracking through some of the areas most affected by higher temperatures - within footsteps of the retreat of the coral-killing hot water - thus being ideally placed to gather fresh data on the extent of coral bleaching over a wide arc of the Pacific; a huge sample. This would be the first ever cataloging of an El Nino event effect on coral across the Pacific.

Additionally, the availability of digital technology and photography today would make the data gathered vastly more detailed and extensive compared with information available on the powerful El Nino event of 1998. We all agreed we needed to get our hands on the new amphibious drone that can land on water and take pictures beneath. We contemplated the advantage of combining it with the new 360fly cameras, which would enable hitherto tricky surveying of coral colonies in mangroves (think; oysters, murky water, bull sharks, and sticky, stinking mud). Could we suspend the cameras under the boat and cover miles at a time? Could the drone be GPS programmed to survey systematically according to new aerial protocols?

Out came the maps. With blinds down and Google Earth projected large on the high wall, Django zoomed in at David’s direction, and he pointed out characteristics of reef and mangrove from a satellite view. I steered us to Fakarava in the Tuamotus, where we will be in June, and while I could inspect passes and look for villages and anchorages (and breaks), David suggested possible areas to photograph. He pointed out the presence of mangroves and reef in the same areas – potential resilient coral colonies.

The Tuamotus reef breaks, Photo by Ben Thouard

The Tuamotus reef breaks, Photo by Ben Thouard

I wondered about the location of these islands relative to South America – the first land for about 4000 nautical miles after a long ride westward on the trades gathering wave, swell, and deep ocean currents – one of the reasons why surfers go the extra mile to get there. The Tuamotus are a collection of atolls just metres above sea level, some of them up to 60miles wide, with nothing but the fringing reef left of long ago volcanic islands that have since sunk back down into the sea, leaving behind a ring of coral. Their sentinel role in welcoming the trades that have blown for so long make them awesome to me and I’m intrigued to feel what its like to be there in that place on the planet. The space is so vast.

We got down to specifics. Our mission: We will venture out 2-3 days a week for a couple of hours on and in the water photographing sections of reef. Emma and David have a clear methodology spelled out for us, which follows protocol they have refined in their extensive work throughout New Caledonia and Seychelles.

Our brand new expedition tender is a 3.7 m Quickboat, a crazy Australian boat that literally folds into a couple of bags, but will plane at 20 knots and take us places over reefs the flimsy inflatables won't. We’ve got a brand new Tohatsu waiting for us in Tahiti, with enough push to navigate passes and currents easily.

At this stage, well sorry, but we are all frothing.

We will be returning with an army of data. David and Emma have prepared a Godzilla spreadsheet for undergraduate students to populate with extensive information on coral health post-El Nino in South Pacific, working from images captured on Pacific Climate Expedition. I took one look at it and glazed over. Go for it guys, knock yourself out. I’ll be up the front in the hammock, planning our next adventure.


Follow the crew along the way right here on Coastalwatch and on their Pacific Climate Exhibition Facebook page

Tags: Tuamotus , climate , expedition , pacific , ocean , ruth , tedder (create Alert from these tags)

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