The Expedition Tongareva team earlier this month en route to Tahiti, where each member quarantined before boarding the research vessels. Back row (L to R): Andrea George, Mary McDonald, Graham McDonald, Tom Weeks, Kirby Morejohn, Tua Matepi, Michael Parrish. Front Row (L to R): Charlee McLean, Jessica Cramp, Jacqui Evans, Tai George, Terena Koteka-Wiki, Marino Evans-Vakatini.
A Cook Islands-led scientific expedition is on its way to Penrhyn to carry out vital research on marine life on the remote Northern Group island.
The Expedition team is jointly-led by non-governmental
organisation Sharks Pacific and the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR), and
includes Rarotonga-based NGOs Te Ipukarea Society and Moana Foundation, as well
as the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust with the support of the National
Environment Service (NES).
The local groups have teamed up with Inkfish, a
Seattle, Washington, USA-based organisation that supports marine research. With
three vessels currently in the region, Inkfish has generously offered their
support to both Sharks Pacific and MMR for marine research that could be
carried out in the Cook Islands aboard the vessels.
It was an offer that couldn’t be refused, says Sharks
Pacific founder and executive director Dr. Jess Cramp, who resides in Rarotonga
and has spent a decade studying sharks in the region, including Penrhyn.
“It’s very difficult to raise funds to conduct
research in the Northern Group. Our team was lucky enough to spend time on
Tongareva studying sharks and learning from the locals in 2018, and we’ve been
trying to get back since,” Cramp says.
“When this opportunity popped up, I was thrilled to
partner with MMR and other local NGOs to return to Tongareva to expand our
research capabilities, but to do it with a bigger team, including young Cook
Islanders with a keen interest in marine science.”
Equipped with submarines, autonomous remotely operated
underwater vehicles (ROVs), and full diving facilities including hyperbaric
chambers, Cramp says the vessels are ideal for the type of research that will
be carried out on the northern group island.
The group’s research permit allows them to conduct
biodiversity and marine resource surveys from reef flats to depths of 1000
metres, which is a particular point of excitement for those involved and only
possible due to the equipment, gear, and qualified crew that have been made
available by Inkfish.
Data gathered by researchers will add to a 2015 reef
survey carried out by MMR, which is the only extensive resource survey that has
been carried out on Penrhyn to-date. Using that baseline data, the research
will also provide insights into how the island’s marine environment may have
changed over time.
“Undertaking any marine monitoring and research
activities in our Pa Enua is costly and logistically challenging, limiting what
we can normally achieve. Tongareva’s expansive marine environment only adds to
that,” says MMR Secretary Pamela Maru.
“Partnerships, like this with Inkfish, that supports
Cook Islanders to get out there with the tools we need to do the science and
collect the data, so we know and understand and can share with our people
what’s happening in our waters, is invaluable.”
“Having MMR and local partners working together,
pooling our technical expertise, means we can achieve more. It won’t just
benefit the people of Tongareva but the broader Cook Islands, contributing to
our marine biodiversity knowledge base and Marae Moana planning. We’ll be able
to monitor any changes over time, for example changes to coral reef coverage
and diversity that may be due to climate change, so that we can develop
conservation and management approaches that effectively respond to any
The island – with its famous massive, deep water
lagoon – was chosen by researchers due to its unique status as having the
highest density of reef sharks of any inhabited island on the planet – a
discovery made by Cramp and her team during their 2018 research expedition to
Cramp says an area of interest for research will be
identifying critical habitat for certain species of endangered sharks,
including Oceanic Whitetip Sharks, which have been observed to migrate between
Rarotonga and Penrhyn.
Other areas of focus for researchers will be
documenting an extensive record of Penrhyn’s biodiversity for the Cook Islands
Heritage Trust and NES, as well as outreach and education efforts, including
knowledge exchange with the local community.
Every member of the expedition team is either a Cook
Islander or a Cook Islands resident, which is a point of pride for many taking
part, including Jacqueline Evans, founder of the Moana Foundation and
“I’m grateful to have been invited to be part of this
expedition but especially excited that some of our young Cook Islands marine
science students are able to have this experience,” she says.
“There is often little opportunity for Cook Islands
science graduates to practice their science in the workplace and this
expedition enables that to happen.”
Penrhyn’s Island Council has given permission to the
research team for this expedition, which will be required to adhere to strict
guidelines and screening for Covid-19.