Tsunami Rescue: Tales from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
From Kara Osada-D'Avella, CORAL's field representative in West Hawaii
I was aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai during the tsunami. We were headed out to collect data at Wake Island, a coral atoll in the Pacific that's over 2,000 miles from Hawaii—a nine-day journey by boat. The tsunami hit when we were only one day out, and our ship was called into rescue mode. We quickly changed course and headed to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to evacuate teams of scientists from low-lying islands that were damaged in the tsunami.
Our first rescue mission was to Laysan Island, where we needed to pick up a team of monk seal biologists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel whose food and water supplies were compromised by the tsunami. High swells kept our boats from pulling up to shore, but luckily, a few of the biologists on board were avid swimmers. They were able to get all seven people safely off of the island by swimming them out to boats waiting to bring them aboard the Hi'ialakai.
|A rescue boat carrying members of the monk
seal team is lifted onto the Hi'ialakai
All seven monk seal team members were safe, with no injuries from the tsunami, but they had lost their water pump and would not have been able to get enough fresh water without it. The researchers had been on Laysan since August and were scheduled to depart from the island in three more weeks.
After safely depositing the monk seal team on Midway Island, where they could fly back to Honolulu, the Hi'ialakai was again pulled into rescue mode to evacuate five biologists from Kure Atoll. Although no structural damage occurred on Kure, NOAA felt it prudent to remove the biologists in case nuclear contamination were to spread from damaged Japanese reactors—a fairly remote threat, but in the case of an emergency, it would take any other ship five days to reach Kure. We were able to quickly pick up the team and their gear and take them to Midway Island.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are small islands, many of which reach a maximum height of only 40 feet above sea level. The tsunami impacted many nesting bird populations, especially because it hit while Laysan albatross and black albatross had fledglings. Many of these young birds were carried out to sea, or buried beneath debris. As researchers had to be removed from the island, the full extent of fledglings lost might never be known.
|Kara and members of her team head back to the
Hi'ialakai after a successful day of surveying fish
populations at Wake Island
The Hi'ialakai did finally make it to Wake—just three days later than scheduled—to complete five days of working operations around the island. NOAA only surveys islands every other year, so every minute is used to collect as much data as possible. During the day, several different teams of scientists set out to study fish biodiversity and abundance (my team), benthic organisms, microbes, and environmental conditions. We also utilized a setup that tows divers around the island to videotape and record large-scale data on the island's health. Further data was taken all night through CTD deployments (instrument packages that record data including conductivity, temperature, and depth).
|Bumphead parrotfish at Wake Island|
During the five days, I conducted a total of seventeen dives. I got to see rare fish, including the Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrotfish, that have been fished out in other parts of the world, and we were also privileged enough to have large schools of Galapagos sharks around us on two separate dives.
As we transit now to Saipan, data from all teams is being evaluated to look at changes from the last time we visited. Although my journey ends in Saipan, the Hi'ialakai and many of the scientists will continue on for another two expeditions through the Mariana Islands.
For more information about the rescues and research at Wake Island, visit the NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division's mission blog.