Field Notes Archives: May 2012

May 6, 2012:

Field Journal- Jarvis Underwater

5.6.12  Today was my first day in the water filming on this expedition.

A little background on me and what I do. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I spent many years as a marine field biologist in these very waters before heading off to film school. In Montana I earned an MFA in Science & Natural History Filmmaking at MSU, started my own production company- Open Boat Films- and jar_coral_cover_grouper1spent half a dozen years filming for projects all over the world. Last summer, Open Boat Films won the grant competition to make an outreach film for the three new Marine National Monuments and after nine months of preparations- here I am.

This trip is the first part of field film production for the outreach video. I am a team of one, or a part of a team of twenty, depending on how you look at it. I’d say it’s more accurate to call me the visual documentation member of the scientific research team. I am here to document the field science as it happens, as well as these remote, intact coral reef ecosystems. With saltwater, unpredictable ocean conditions, electronics, and nowhere to buy spare parts for jarvis uw_turtle1_sgordon3000 miles- wish me luck! Fingers crossed all my gear will work, and continue to work, and beyond that- yes, I’ll try to capture glimpses of these reefs that show how worthy they are of our care, our interest, and our protection. These reefs, unlike their sister reefs in heavily populated areas, are healthy and whole and function as a coral reef ecosystem should. Let’s see what that looks like. I’ll do my best to document it and will share images with you so you can see it too- what a lively reef looks like. It’s nothing like you’ll see off the sunscreen slicked waters off Waikiki, with all due respect to the fun little waves that break there.

So, today was my first day filming underwater, since I was on the island for 3 days. Did my camera gear work? Yes! Nothing leaked, fried, or fizzled. The buttons all lined up with the controls. I need to work on holding the camera very, very steady- it’s a smaller, jumpier setup than I’m used to and I haven’t fine-tuned the trim or buoyancy on it. Each blog post I’ll share a tip or trick forjar_molly_cloud_sgordon1 field shooting. Today’s tip- invest time in adjusting the ergonomics of how you shoot so the camera feels balanced and you can move effortlessly- topside or underwater. It’s worth it.

Here few stills I captured from the video showing the thick carpet of coral, algae, and other living creatures that absolutely blanket the reef at Jarvis. There were small flecks of nutrients in the water from upwelling (water that comes from deeper in the ocean) and clouds of purple and gold anthias were feeding on it.

jarvis uw_whitetip_shk1_sgordon

Turtles were tucked into the reef here and there, and as I swam slowly up to an overhanging ledge crowded with red soldierfish, three napping whitetip reef sharks pushed past the red fish and surprised me.

Note to self, be careful of swimming up to things while peering through the wide-angle port.

There should be a safety warning stenciled on it ‘objects may be closer than they appear!’

May 5, 2012:

Field Journal – Jarvis Island, day 4

5.5.12 – Saturday, Jarvis Island, terrestrial.

At 5am I called out ‘good morning’ to Amanda, and she and I climbed out of our respective tents, quickly got packed up and headed out for the day’s work. I speed-walked along shore, racing the fast rising sun, and filmed the stone

monument right at sunrise. Amanda caught up with me a few minutes later, and I filmed her collecting samples from the bug traps we’d set on the first day. The light was so nice that I interviewed her perched on the edge of the stone tower. The island is a soft, gentle, beautiful place early in the morning. By


6:30am, the sun was high enough that it started to get hot. By 7:30- no more soft gentle light, just hot desert island sun. Amanda headed off to collect the bug traps on the far side of the island, and I walked around filming tern skeletons scattered about the hardpan ground, and then made my way back to the shoreline by the sign. I meant to walk back to camp and continue along the coast past there, but instead I just sat for a few minutes in the narrow wedge of shade made by the sign. I closed my eyes and just listened, and breathed.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the beauty of the shoreline at low tide- coralline pink algae and flesh frilly green algae covering the rocks at the edge of the shallow reef flat. The reef crest was beyond, with waves breaking on it, and a jar8_sgordon1deep cerulean blue channel leading thru the barrier up to the area near the sign. The Hi’ialakai was running alongshore a quarter mile off. I picked my way carefully down the steep slope of coral rubble, and then even more carefully across the tidepools with my tripod and camera balanced on my shoulder. I filmed the waves washing over the pink algae, filling the tidepools, and the surreal landscape that is Jarvis island’s shoreline- brilliant white beach, pink reef, jade green shallows, deeper blue water, crashing waves, birds zipping from sea to shore and back, water washing up and then sucking back. The beach was made of bleached white coral pieces, shells, and the occasional jewel-colored lobster carapace or bright orange crab shell. The colors are all so intense and pure.

Tip of the day- Stop, close your eyes, and breathe.

I almost walked right past the place I ended up happily filming for an hour.

May 4, 2012:

Field Journal – Jarvis Island, day 3

5.4.12 – Friday. Jarvis Island, terrestrial team.

Another hot, hot day on an exposed pile of coral rubble, sand, and over a million sea birds. Masked boobies predominate. Sooty terns blanket huge swaths of the interior- hundreds of thousands, actually quite easily over half a million. Brown boobies, red-footed boobies, and redtailed tropicbirds are

scattered around in smaller clusters. There is a gang of frigate birds. Gray backed terns nest here as well, and blue gray noddies- both rare sightings anywhere else. Brown noddies too- in scattered clusters of a dozen or two. Bristle-thighed curlews- a handful. Ruddy turnstones. Wandering tattlers, which the Hawaiians call ‘ilili, for their call.


As for vegetation- five or six plants are common- a few salt tolerant succulents, a low lying plant with leaves that resemble morning glory, bushes with tiny purple or white flower clusters. Ilima. Salacornia. Tribulous with its bright yellow flowers and sharp thorny seeds. No coconut palms or any shade providers- nothing that needs that much fresh water.

Woke up at 5am, with the sun about to rise over the horizon.

It’s a race- the good light lasts a scant hour.

The hour- 5:30-6:30. I stretch it to 7, but by 8 it might as well be nearly noon. I jar2_sgordonfilmed tropic bird chick- a fuzzy gray one, and I don’t remember what else. I do remember feeling vastly discouraged at my lack of everything (skills, equipment, time) to get the shots I wanted- which were the golden lit boobies, tropic birds, terns, and frigates zooming past in flight. I squandered most of the morning light trying to film a tropic bird landing in a big flurry of white wings and popping into the nest cavity to greet and then relieve its mate. Anticipating which bird would land, focusing, zooming- and focusing with the lcd in the bright light- it conspired to make that task impossible.

Tip of the day.

If a shot eludes you, at some point acknowledge the limitations of your gear or situation and move on.

May 3, 2012:

Field Journal – Jarvis Island, day 2

5.3.12 – Thursday. Jarvis Island, terrestrial team.

There is sand in my tent, the backs of my legs and feet are sunburned so badly I just took two ibuprofin, and the light is decent for exactly 1.5 hrs in the morning and again in the late afternoon. But we had a good day on the island. I got up at 5am, just before sunrise. Filmed a redtailed tropicbird in her driftwood log cavern, surrounded by large red hermit crabs. The light was exquisite, so I ran around, trying to shoot bejar6_sgordonfore it ran out. Sure enough by 7:30 the sun was headed fast up into the sky, and by 9 it was nearly overhead. Seriously. I slapped on some sunscreen, loaded up my pack, and away we went, around the island. That was our main task today- to circumnavigate the coastline of Jarvis noting any signs of human disturbance. We came across some old rusted barrels, an empty tin of soybean oil, a shipwreck, a wooden block and tackle (that must be pretty old), a fish buoy, and the SST buoy CRED deployed 2 years ago, buried in the sand. At one point we came across a fantastic little inlet with 20 or 30 blacktip reef sharks swimming in it. There were jumping gobies (the big ones) in the tide pools near the edge of that channel. It was an enchanting place. jar5_sgordonThe battery on my camera ran out of juice about then, but I was able to film the sharks.

What did I learn today? Bring twice the batteries you think you need. Make that three times as many.

Also, wear sunscreen. And getting up early is always worth it.


May 2, 2012:

Field Journal – Jarvis Island, Day 1

5.2.12 – Wednesday. Jarvis Island on the near horizon.

A (Slightly Rough) Beach Landing

After days and days and DAYS of traveling across the ocean at 8.5 kts, today, near the end of the afternoon, there she was- Jarvis. Low lying island with scrubby veg and white sand. The ship had traveling through a squall with 30 kt winds, so there was some hemming and hawing about whether or not they’d launch the small boat to take us to the island. There was just enough daylight and the seas had calmed down, so at 4:45pm sharp they launched the Avon, and then Rubber Ducky (one of CRED’s safeboats). We loaded our 7 buckets, 3 dry bags, 4 pelicases, 1 cooler, and 3 water jugs, and climbed aboard one of the boats ourselves. A pod of shiny, muscular dolphins escorted us in- leaping next to the boat, riding our bow as we sped across the water to the island.

Gaetano, who has landed folks on this beach before, coached Scotty on the landing spot, and how to thread the channel. There were waves breaking on shallow coral baumies to either side, but a calm slot down the middle, so Scotty drove the boat straight up to the sand.


We hustled all the gear off, carrying it to the tide line, and then pushed the boat off so they could return to the ship. Once they were out of sight, we stripped off our ‘non-quarantine’ clothes, put on Jarvis clothes, and set up camp. Amanda Meyer, the Fish & Wildlife Refuge Manager, and I each have a pup tent.

We ate foil packets of chickpea curry for dinner, and then read through our laundry list of scientific tasks while on island. Amanda Meyer is the Fish & Wildlife Refuge Manager for Jarvis, Palmyra, and Kingman, and part of my duties on this expedition are to help her with terrestrial surveys on this island. It’s just the two of us on the island, and we have a lot to do!

Southern cross, and the false cross are both up, as is Maui’s Fishhook (Scorpius). There’s an almost full moon, and scattered clouds. It’s a beautiful night. My skin feels salty and sticky, and we need to save our fresh water for drinking so no shower in my immediate future.


Ocean sounds and birds calling (those noisy terns, they talk all night!), but no generators or air-conditioning or all the interior and exterior background noise of a ship.

Pretty peaceful here. The ship looks far away in the dark- just a small patch of light on the horizon. I can’t tell if that makes me feel small and insignificant, or if I’m ok with it. I think I’m fine with it. Time to set up a night sky timelapse! Then, I’ll climb into that little tent for some well earned shut eye, and dream of birds and hermit crabs.

2012 Archives