Teokotai George, Ma‘uke’s fisheries officer, calls over the sound of howling wind and storm waves breaking on Ma‘uke’s reef.
Tua Matepi, Mangaia’s fisheries officer, disappears beneath white foam when a rush of water floods the reef.
Tai, who’s closer to shore than Tua, tries to hold her ground but the power of the rushing water pulls her down. Suddenly only her clipboard and dry bag are above water.
“We’re doing it!” a faint voice responds.
What he’s saying is that despite the weather, the biodiversity survey needs to get done.
Tua and three Rarotonga-based marine scientists from the Inshore Division of the Ministry of Marine Resources have come to Ma‘uke to train and work alongside Tai for two weeks, and their remaining days are numbered.
They’ve been working sun-up to sundown, dropping and retrieving BRUVs – baited remote underwater video, or a weighted structure holding a GoPro – as well as surveying animals on the reef and beyond it, using scuba tanks.
When the set has passed, Tai and Dr Lara Ainley move carefully and deliberately toward each other, along a 40-metre line – a transect – anchored by two rocks.
Both are bent over, masked faces in the water, looking for anything alive and spineless – the scientific term for these animals is invertebrates – within a metre of the line.
They’re recording every invert with pencil on waterproof paper, noting its attributes and habitat: details such as GPS coordinates, algae cover, and corals nearby. Commercial species, such as ariri, get measured with a plastic ruler.
Closer to the crest of the reef, Tua and fisheries officer James Kora are doing the same thing. The work is slow, time-consuming, and sometimes treacherous; Tua emerges from a set with a scraped-up arm.
“Lara! What’s the scientific name for this one?” Tai shouts over the wind, holding up a mangeongeo, ready to scribble in the margins of her sheet. She is learning how to connect what she knows from experience, from growing up on an outer island with a father who took her fishing, to the kind of data collection that informs policy written on Rarotonga and beyond.
“I want to know more about the ocean,” Tai tells me, “because we use it every day.”
Tai, who is Ma‘uke’s first female fisheries officer, grew up fishing.
The fifth of 12 kids, she first went beyond the reef with her dad as soon as she turned 12. She learnt to fish by trolling and using a drop-stone.
Later her brother, Ngere Bernard, got a job with the Ministry of Marine Resources on Rarotonga. He would come home and use scientific names for animals they’d grown up catching and finding in the bellies of the fish they caught. The Latin names expanded Tai’s world.
“Man, I thought that was so cool,” she says.
In 2014, she began working as a fisheries officer and has since attended regional conferences in Vanuatu, New Zealand, and Rarotonga to deepen her understanding of how the resources she grew up using are being managed.
Tai looks forward to marine scientists visiting Ma‘uke, because otherwise she is the only person at her office. She’s alone, but the work isn’t lonely; she often mentors and teaches senior students. Some even observe her surveys.
“I want them to feel, you know?” she says. “I don’t want to stand in front of them and tell them things. I want them to know it is there, it is growing, because it will stay in their hearts, what they saw.
“If I just tell them, it doesn’t mean anything to them. Hands-on is effective. … That’s the fastest way to reach your message out: through the kids. The kids will tell their parents, grandparents, and family what’s out there and what needs to be done to protect our ocean and how we can help to better manage our ocean.”
Does anybody know what these are?”
Dr Ainley, who works as a senior marine ecologist, is pointing to a picture of a stressed maturori on a screen, addressing 25 students and five teachers in a humid classroom at Apii Ma‘uke.
She and her team are here to tell everyone what they’ve been doing over the last two weeks, and why.
“Noodles!” a student calls out, and the room erupts into laughter.
Dr Ainley explains that maturori ejects spaghetti-like tubes to defend itself against predators.
“And this?” she asks of remu. “Invertebrate or vertebrate?”
“Food!” 15-year-old Jaidyn offers.
“This?” Ainley asks.
“Angamea!” yells 13-year-old Rouru.
“Akamea marine scientist,” someone else mutters, and the classroom again floods with laughter.
When the students settle, marine scientist Kirby Morejohn asks: “So why is it important that we do what we do? Why do we care about the animals in the ocean and the plants in the ocean?”
“Te kai ra matou!” says Taitungane, a year 9 student.
To this group of students, there is no separation between people and resources. For thousands of years, science has informed decisions about resource management, though today the science looks different and so do the regulations it seeks to inform.
“There’s lots of reasons why we want to look after our oceans,” Dr Ainley says. “One of the ways that we can take care of our oceans and track how they change is by collecting information and data. That’s one of the most important roles of a marine scientist.”
She brings out rope, hooks, and data sheets to show students how to do a survey on a transect. This will be their ongoing project; they will be periodically surveying animals at Pirikura, on the northwestern side of the island, and analysing population densities and growth rates.
The exercise aims to help them understand how science shapes management measures.
“Why would density of pa’ua decrease?” Morejohn asks the class.
“They’re dying!” a student calls out.
“People are taking them,” someone answers.
“Temperature!” another interjects.
These students understand the impact humans are having on the environment. The team of scientists before them hope this understanding might merge with training in marine science, so that these kids will ultimately influence or be involved in responsible decision-making about resources.
“Our aim is that this is your project,” Dr Ainley says. “Your special area of the reef, where you go a few times a year or however often you need to go, and you measure your own environment, your reef flat, your animals. Your resources.”
“This is a great start,” a voice from the back offers. Teata Aretiano, principal of Apii Ma‘uke, admits it’s been a struggle to motivate students to learn science. She says the school hasn’t had a qualified maths or science teacher for two years.
James encourages the class to engage with marine science, because it can be a pathway to a fulfilling career.
“All of these opportunities came when I got into the sciences,” he says, admitting that he wasn’t interested in science initially, either.
“A job as a marine scientist can take you to a lot of cool places – Manuae, Takutea, very special places not a lot of people get to go. We as a team get to go there to see the abundance of fish you see in these photos and videos on the slides. You get to scuba dive, be in the water, see the turtles and sharks and all sorts of cool things.
“Ma‘uke is my last southern group island. I’m fortunate to say I’ve travelled all over the southern group in my job, so hopefully that’s encouraging to you guys and you take up marine science in the future.”
During surveys and long days at sea, Tai has been talking to the team about establishing a permanent no-take zone at Pirikura, where students will be doing surveys.
Today, at a community meeting, she intends to make a proposal.
She addresses those who have come, explaining that her colleagues have come here for several reasons: to survey the reef; to clip genetic samples from pa’ua, which will be used to understand the animal’s inter-island relationships; to deploy BRUVs every 500 metres all the way around Ma‘uke; and to teach schoolkids about collecting data.
The result of days so hot Tai’s lips blistered and so blustery she shivered is that there is data to share. Coral around the island appears healthy; there seems to be fewer food fish than around other islands; there are plenty of hawksbill turtles and rori nuinui, both globally endangered species; and there’s taramea but not in high enough densities to warrant concern.
The team makes one last point, that there’s more algae near the dump than anywhere else, and then proffers a scientific disclaimer: no one knows for sure whether this is because of the dump.
Then there’s a video, a 12-minute version of 32 hours of underwater footage, featuring eel fights and reef sharks and turtles. Tai suggests the permanent no-take zone, a bank account for long-term growth.
“Let’s get behind this,” decides Tangata, the island’s policeman.
Tai Tura, Ma‘uke’s member of Parliament, agrees. “It’s not the island council that owns the lagoon,” he says.
“The people of Ma‘uke own the lagoon. I’m happy for the school to do this. Let’s get behind the school and our marine officer to make this fruitful.”