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Report From the French Frigate Shoals — Part 3

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posted 07/07/05

Eat, Be Eaten or Get Out of the Way

By Joe Spring, Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Student

East Island is a border world where animals of sea, sand and sky constantly cross paths. Tiger sharks cruise the blue and green shallows hunting for fledgling sea birds that have landed in the water after their first attempt at flight. Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) give birth to shiny black pups on the sand. Brown noddies (Anous stolidus) dive into the near-shore waters for finger-sized silverfish. Green sea turtles come ashore to dig their nests and in the process crawl over and crush the eggs of ground-nesting seabirds.

Tiger sharks have their best luck with fledgling sea birds that land in the water after their first attempt at flight. Scientists estimate that one in ten fledglings will be eaten by sharks. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

Most of the animals with which I share East Island are migratory. This small, federally protected sandbar in the middle of French Frigate Shoals serves as a temporary home for animals from all over the Pacific. There are at least 18 species of seabirds alone that nest on the tiny atoll. Adults, chicks and eggs blanket the ground, cram the seven bushes that dot the island or hide in underground burrows. Some of the birds, like the Laysans albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) spend most of their lives in the air, searching the ocean for food. They come here to court and nest after months, sometimes years, without touching a webbed foot to solid ground. As one might expect, they are built for flight: several of the species have a wingspan that rivals mine, and the two species of albatross on the island about 80 inches from wingtip to wingtip.

I spend the daylight hours in and around my tent, sleeping or entering data in order to minimize my effect on the island's wildlife. At night, my challenge is to find turtles and gather data and tissue samples without disturbing the other residents. I spend much of the night looking at the ground, moving my feet in a staccato dance step to avoid resting birds, fragile eggs, underground burrows and sleeping seals.

When the moon is out, it reflects off the white sand and tropical waters to reveal the wildlife, making my job a little easier. My eyes have adapted to the dark and I can navigate the island rarely relying on my head lamp. It is just one more way I try to lessen my impact on an island that is a refuge for tens of seals, hundreds of turtles, and thousands of birds.

Researchers decorated cookies to celebrate July 4th. Joe Spring's cookie, upper left, was inspired by the numerous sharks he has seen feeding on sea birds. Photo credit: Joe Spring/USFWS/NMFS

Sunrise brings a glimmer of welcome light for my last lap of the island at 7:00 A.M. Birds line the shore, flapping their immense wings in the morning breeze while sharks wait just offshore. They hunt the birds almost as you would use a flyswatter, sneaking up behind a bird on the water at a measured pace, then striking quickly once in position. Scientists estimate that one in ten fledging birds on these islands will be eaten by sharks. Many more will succumb to starvation, disease or injury. If they make it, they will travel thousands of miles over the next several years before returning back to this tiny spit of sand to nest.

After a night and morning of work, I eat a pot of soup outside my tent. When my dinner is finished, I walk down to the beach and scrub the pot clean with sand and rinse it out with saltwater, just one more meal among thousands here on East Island. On the way back up the berm, I pick off a feather clinging to metal.

Related Links:

Wildlife Trust
Info on Sea Turtles
The Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Journalism Program
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- Green Sea Turtles
The National Marine Fisheries Service -- Green Sea Turtles


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