By E. Barbara Klemm, Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Aboard a ship like the NOAA Ship Hi`ialakai, the cadence of time can be seen and felt as a green flash with the setting sun, the glide of Scorpio across the night sky, the shifting shape of the moon, and the regularity of the sun's morning rays—and, of course, the smell of coffee and food waiting for us in the galley. As we move upwards through the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, we’re not only traversing space, but also moving through time.
We're journeying purposefully, learning from scientists about the NWHI islands, and how fragile these tiny, remote ecosystems are. We’re learning through our own senses about their beauty and about how pristine these environments are, especially when compared to the main Hawaiian island.
Our sponsors developed the Navigating Change curriculum so that classroom teachers have resources to teach about NWHI, and to compare the rich, natural oceanic abundance there with the heavily depleted main islands. Both areas undergo natural changes, but if the present NWHI are indicators of what once existed in the MHI, then we have a basis for understanding the consequences of human impacts in the past and present, and to think about better ways for human interaction with the natural oceanic environment in the future.
To me, the notion of change is inseparable from the notions of time, time scales and the rate of change, both natural and anthropogenic. Understanding natural changes might, at first, seem evident in looking at the still-forming Big Island, then tracing through the ages of the main islands, and the much older ages of the NWHI areas. On this trip, I'm privileged to be able to witness firsthand what some of the far older NWHI islands look like, and to compare them with firsthand knowledge of the main islands. We can also look at photos and maps to see the same story. But, unless we have a sense of deep time as measured in millions of years, we have little then comprehension of the pace geological changes that formed these islands, or of the opposing changes that are eroding and subsiding them, until they sink beneath the sea.
Our first stop on Saturday was at Nihoa, a massive, steep rocky outcropping, but it was not until Sunday when we snorkeled near the much smaller Mokumanama island that my senses began to catch up to what my brain was processing on the maps: these are remnants of islands that once where about the size of Oahu where I live. As we approached them, we traversed 20 miles or more submerged banks, with only the ships’ depth soundings providing evidence of the size of these former islands. Scientists tell us about these processes of change, including that all these islands move about as far as a grown man is tall towards the Northwest each year. Change that slow is difficult for me to comprehend.
Thinking on a somewhat lesser time scale, we have been talking about the processes of coral colonization and the evolution of coral reefs from fringing to barrier and patch reefs to atolls. Inevitably, we've also been talking about endemic fish, seaweeds and other life forms that took hold. Maps help me to see just how isolated the islands are the islands in this archipelago, and my imagination is stirred wondering about how these lifeforms managed to get here, survive, flourish and abundantly fill the varied rocky sea cliff, coastal shore, and sandy atoll ecosystems we have seen as we snorkel. Comprehending all this requires understanding of many biogeographic factors as well as speciation, but to comprehend these natural changes also requires as sense of biological time.
Appreciating the Hawaiians who first came to the islands also requires a sense of time and change. Aboard with us are kapuna who are teaching us about their Hawaiian culture. As a science educator, I have gained partial knowledge of the Hawaiian feats of navigation, of their ability to transport life forms in canoes over great distance, and of their ability to farm and fish, yet to manage and sustain the land and nearshore ecosystems. They came to these islands some 1,500 years ago, perhaps around 500AD. As we circled Mokumanamana and saw evidence atop the cliffs of Hawaiian heiau, and I saw the bareness of the steep rocky terrain with no sign of water, I wondered how they managed to survive there, and what they knew that we in our modern dive boat do not know. Although I'm not a historian, now I'm curious as to what peoples of Europe, and elsewhere were doing in 500AD, how far they travelled, and how they farmed or fished to sustain their needs. How different modern life on the main islands is today!
Presentations by scientists the past few days have focused on specific organisms or ecosystem situations. Each is involved in protecting ocean life, each seeks to gather information, and grapples with questions related to how best manage and conserve the NWHI. Although these are dynamic places of continuous change, scientific studies indicate that the simplest of changes can have--and have had--enormous impacts affecting many organisms. We’ve learned about such intentional human impacts over the past century as lobster fishing, guano and bird egg harvesting, and deliberate introduction of rabbits. One the scientists with us made dives to detect whether alien seaweeds had moved as far north as Mokumanuma; yet others disembarked to conduct extensive field studies on the impact of alien grasshoppers on native coastal vegetation. We’ve seen for ourselves that tappae introduced for fisheries on the MHI are now found here among the native species. Some human actions are intentional, others, unintentional, but have had devastating effects, as in the examples of rats that destroyed native sea birds; or alien grasses that invaded native habit. Some of us have seen the rampant overgrowth of the beautiful coral in Kaneohe Bay by aggressive, introduced seaweeds. We share with these scientists their concerns over the damage that might happen here too, if similarly aggressive alien marine life invades these much smaller areas. The NWHI are treasure troves of endemic species. If we learn enough and have enough wisdom, perhaps humans can act not just to prevent degradation of the NWHI, but also to learn ways to reintroduce some of the now depleted or missing marine life back into the main island. Changes in this framework are in a matter of years, an astonishingly fast rate compared to natural change. Understanding and managing intentional changes and acting to prevent unwanted unintentional changes can only be described as urgent.
With us are researchers who are living and actively engaged examples of scientists in action. As educators, we’re charged with teaching the scientific process, and aboard this ship we are witnessing the scientific process unfolding. Any old stereotypes in school books about “the scientific method” is readily dispelled as the various scientists with us articulate to us their thinking processes, how they plan their observations, their decision making processes on site, and how they collect and interpret information. Given the remoteness of this region, each expedition up here offers a precious opportunity that must be used to the utmost to gain information about marine life. When I work with student teachers, introducing them to the science education standards, some are unsure as to what "the values and attitudes" of scientists mean, but here on this expedition, we’re witnessing their dedication to "wildlife first" and their self-conscious enactments of honesty and accountability in what they do.
Aboard ship we've been having so many conversations not just about science but also about our roles as educators and how we will use this opportunity as a participant in 2005 NOAA Education Expedition. The first morning, when Nihoa was dead ahead, visible and framed in the distance by the bow super structure, I could see the islands with my eyes, but my inexpensive digital camera could not capture it immediately, until we approached closer. In a real way, my mind is like that camera. What can I, or should I be capturing educationally to take back to my students? My students are science teachers. That’s my real quest on this Expedition.
So, what can we do, what should we do? I am privileged indeed to be part of the 2005 Boatload of Educators, and to be provided with this opportunity—this time together with other educators, scientists and sea people—to pursue these questions. (I can’t but help thinking how little time we have to work with our classroom students, and on whether our students have time to experience, question, ponder, and ultimately to grow.) Each of us educators is expected to develop some sort of instructional product. Given the musings I’ve shared here, I chose understanding of time as my topic.
On this expedition, what had been just disconnected historical information has become real. I've witnessed deep geological time and natural, slow changes. Humans and their modern technologies can gravely alter environments as they've done with commercial exploitation of these islands. Yet, there is hope. We're learning about intentional human efforts to restore, to protect, and to better understand, manage and preserve resources. For me, the most assuring is that nature can and has healed itself, when given a chance, when given time.
Also very reassuring was hearing all the wonderful ideas that each of the educators on this Expedition has to take ideas back so that we can teach students and others about this incredible experience.