By Fields Falcone, China Keeper
Four days after the scheduled departure and a different (smaller) boat altogether, a (smaller) MAC crew along with the CNMI biologists and the captain left Tinian for the tiny volcanic island of Guguan with nearly 100 birds in tow. Because of the late departure and the change of vessel, not all of us were able to go – five brave souls took to the waves in unchartered fluid territory for the MAC Program. In the past, the CNMI government has chartered a helicopter to carry half that number of birds (the max that will fit in cargo) to the island of Sarigan, the closest of the sanctuary islands we will release birds on in the coming decades. Life north of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota in the Marianas is wild – there are no helicopter pads or guaranteed fueling stations. Islands further out than Sarigan will require more fuel than a helicopter can hold to make the round trip, so the present and future hold Dramamine, starry skies, and open ocean for the release crews.
The trip to Guguan took over 15 hours including overnight. This was planned so the birds could have a late afternoon diet serving and then get some rest, and the crew could arrive early in the morning, hike the birds up volcanic scree to the forest, and release the birds so they could naturally forage for their breakfast. To everyone’s great relief, after being in holding extra days and traveling long hours on undulating seas, all the birds survived, and most quickly flew off from their holding crates – a few took an extra minute to adjust to the new view out of their crate before departing. The rest of the day was spent hiking water, food, and equipment to the base camp for the government biologists, who planned to stay for 8 days to monitor the newly released birds.
By the time the MAC crew were ferried back to Saipan, another night had passed and they had been on their feet (for the most part), seasick, and virtually sleepless, for 48 hours. In that time the rest of us had cleaned, broken down, and repacked all the bird holding boxes (each of the 75 had about a dozen separate parts, and we had only an outdoor spigot to come up with a cleaning assembly line); inventoried, packed, and barged all supplies back to Saipan and ultimately into storage for next year; managed a last minute tour of some island landmarks; and in some cases started our long individual journeys home, still without word that the Guguan crew had safely returned.
Image 1: MAC team member Scott Newland (Sedgwick County Zoo) prepares morning diets for the six-compartment crates that will house the Tinian monarchs and bridled white-eyes on their voyage from Tinian to Guguan.
Image 2: Night falls on the Japanese fishing vessel retro-fitted with a temperature-controlled holding bay for the birds (and a few of the luckier crew members) on the journey to Guguan. Photo credit Justin Grubb, Toledo Zoo.
Image 3: A monument to those who lost their lives in the terror of war at Tinian’s suicide cliffs, where Japanese civilians who refused interment by US forces jumped to their deaths.
Image 4: The one tall(ish) building in Tinian – The Dynasty Casino and Hotel. Our one visit there was to look for an office space with fast enough wifi for one of our colleagues to hold a video conference meeting about another bird conservation effort. We ended up back at the LoriLynn, where she camped out in an open air corridor plugged into the owner’s landline until 4am in the morning Guam time, 9pm CST the day before!
Image 5: Peter Luscomb (left, co-coordinator of the MAC Program), and Rob Mortensen (Aquarium of the Pacific), pitch in on final clean-up with our makeshift sink setup at the LoriLynn Hotel.
Image 6: The boat reaches Guguan! Photo credit Justin Grubb, Toledo Zoo.
Image 7: Kami Fox, DVM (Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo), gently sets down a crate of Tinian monarchs after the hike up to the forest. Photo credit Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo.
Image 8: A peaceful view of evening swimmers during the break-down crew’s last night on Tinian.
Image 9: A pensive lunch back on Saipan as we wait for word from the Guguan crew.
Home – all of us look forward to the return to our families, our places. The biologists on the island thought of their homes on Saipan as tropical storm, and then typhoon, Chan-hom bore down on the south end of the island chain and ultimately ended their surveys after two days. Thankfully they made the half day’s journey home on the boat safely. For most MAC’ers this year, the travel home was also an unexpected challenge – flights canceled, routes changed, all day and overnight layovers. I have now officially visited Japan… and had (unintended) time to tour Pearl Harbor. That sense of place we feel flying in to that familiar airport, pulling in the driveway, a hug from a spouse and the dogs covering us in kisses, is more poignant when where you have been also elicits its own topophilia. In my fifth year of MAC participation, arrival in the Marianas this year for me was like coming home, even as my heart tugged for my loved ones I had just left, and the return view of the Memphis skyline with the mighty Mississippi coursing at its edge held a geometry as familiar and comforting as the back of my own hands.
Image 10: Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona memorial.
Image 11: Some images never leave the mind – the flame trees of the Marianas.
Image 12: Evening sets over calm Saipan waters the night before departure to the mainland. The large Merchant Marine vessels hold mysterious cargo for peacetime import/export and to ready troops in case of conflict in the Pacific Theater. The climate of war ebbs and flows with the tides of our priorities, casting influence and shaping lives and cultures from shore to distant shore.