About R/V Llyr

Located in the highland forests of the Berkshires, in Heath, MA, BSG Maple & Marine is a unique agroforestry project producing Single-Crop, Single-Batch maple Syrups. As a family, we find ourselves moved to action on behalf of oceans. Aboard our 53' research vessel Llyr, we are engaging the changing oceans as a family of social scientists, agroforesters and entrepreneurs--as well as divers and mariners.

A Harvester’s Dilemma

0 degrees this morning! A long way from and an alien climate compared to the setting of my last blog entry. Our maple trees are nearly all tapped and we had two days of limited harvesting prior to this most recent cold spell. Long range forecast isn’t favorable for the maple harvest: we may be facing the 3rd short crop in a row. However, it’s a little soon to predict so we’ll do our best to have a tight line system with no vacuum leaks and we have been able to recover about 500 taps that were lost during the epic 2008 ice storm which will improve our yield.

Weather isn’t climate, so no season or event can be easily attributed to climate change. This may end up as a big crop, or next year’s might; even so, the knowledge we’ve gained about our forest from working with local foresters, and from following climate science, is enough to tell us that things are changing.

These realities connect me emotionally with farmers everywhere. While farming has always been subject to climate patterns and weather events, today the stories come fast and furious about threatened livelihoods, disappearing habitats, diminishing food security, and water shortages. As I stand before each tree in the forest, I find myself gauging its apparent health and capacity, considering its resilience in a time of growing stressors, and weighing the decision to tap it or not against the immediate risks to my family. At times, I deliberately try to saturate myself with this “me or the tree” angst because I believe these feelings lay at the root of so many sustainability problems. While I know that in the long run, survival can only happen with a “me AND the tree” approach, I can identify, for example, with all the fishers I’ve met on expedition aboard Llyr who’ve told me that they know the fish are disappearing from their reef, but they need to feed their families today. What can they do?

Now, as time approaches for us to go to Vanuatu, the setting where we’ve determined to work long term on ridge to reef conservation efforts as Island Reach, I’m reading about how communities are experiencing sea level rise, salt water intrusion into their fresh water sources, more frequent and devastating storms, the decline of their inshore fisheries, and much more. Focus is on building local capacity and resilience in the face of such changes. I’m glad I know, viscerally, that dilemma that often goes with harvesting: to act in the short term for immediate personal survival or to act for the longer term with the aspiration to protect an ecosystem, and thereby ensure real survival through a relationship of interdependency.

Ridge to Reef, Part III

This is an article we are submitting to our local newspaper.



The wind and seas have calmed down today from the 25 knots and 15 foot ocean swells of yesterday. Those kinds of days make it challenging to move about the cabin, cook ,or sleep aboard our 53′ sailing research vessel Llyr. We are currently making passage from the remote island of Suwarrow in the northern Cook Islands in the central South Pacific to Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga. It is a 6 day passage and we are amusing ourselves with the technicalities of crossing the dateline: “if today is tomorrow, then what is yesterday?” It doesn’t take much to entertain you way out here in the middle of the ocean. RV Llyr and crew are well into our second season of work and study on coral reefs and coastal communities. This year finds us crossing the mighty, blue Pacific Ocean, from Panama to Fiji, over 6500 miles of ocean at a speed of about 6 to 7 mph!

RV Llyr, a steel sailing ketch, is the project boat of Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple & Marine and the Steele-McCutchen family. Right now, we have a crew of seven: our family of five, an intern from Four Rivers School in Greenfield, and a climate change speaker/ photographer from Minnesota. The purpose of our expedition is to link from ridge to reef, combining our interests and concerns about sustainable harvesting, small-scale economies, and the support for biological and cultural – or biocultural – diversity in a time of climate change.

We arrived in Panama right on the heels of completing our 2013 maple harvest in Heath to prep the boat for the Pacific. Our route this year has taken us through the remarkable Panama Canal, followed by a month-long offshore trip to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. From there, we traveled south the the low-lying coral atolls of the Tuamotus, and then westward to the Society Islands. We left French Polynesia from Bora Bora, bound for Suwarrow, an uninhabited island in the northern Cooks. Our final destination for 2013 is Fiji, where we’ll haul Llyr out of the water and “plant” her in a trench, there to sit out the cyclone season of the southern hemisphere (roughly October – April). In Spring 2014 our plan is to sail RV Llyr to Vanuatu in Melanesia where we hope to begin long-term work with coastal communities.

Above the waterline, we’ve been interviewing a variety of people – fishers, farmers, teachers, community leaders, scientists – to learn about their pressing concerns and their knowledge of these land- and seascapes. We’ve heard about overfishing by industrial fleets – mostly Asian, but American as well – that threaten the long term foodstocks of these traditionally seafaring people who still rely, to a large extent, on subsistence fishing. We’ve also heard that the local catch of reef fish is getting smaller, as are the sizes of individual fish caught. In some places, fishing livelihoods have almost entirely collapsed and they now have to import fish from other island groups. We’ve learned about the collapse of Black Pearl farming and the unemployment crisis. We’ve heard reports and witnessed the devastation to coral reefs from a multitude of impacts. We’ve visited islands that are mere feet above current sea level, where people will have no recourse except to relocate from their ancestral homes when sea levels rise, as forecast within the next decades.

Below the waterline, we’ve been studying coral reefs, using Reef Check survey methodologies, georeferenced GoPro video footage, and general observations. New to the underwater world of the South Pacific, our only benchmarks are the reefs of the Caribbean. Those reefs have suffered dramatically in the last 20 years, losing significant amounts of coral and fish biomass. While we know that many of the same stresses are present in the Pacific, we’ve held out hopes for healthier reefs given the higher degree of remoteness of these islands. So far, we’ve seen a few locations with colorful reefs and fish – including our first soft corals, which are unique to the Pacific –but overall our findings have led to a somewhat grim mood aboard Llyr. We’ve seen a lot of rubble, reefs overcome by algae, and too few fish. In areas of French Polynesia where the coral is virtually non-existent, the dive businesses construct a spectacle to satisfy tourists by establishing feeding stations that draw fish and sharks.

Coral reefs are arguably the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, along with rainforests, even though they cover only 1% of the Earth’s sea floor. They are home to one quarter of all marine fish species and function as nurseries for offshore fish, thereby feeding millions of people. Corals, to many people’s surprise, are actually animals: they hunt for food with stinging cells, farm by raising algae, and build skeletons from minerals in seawater that form protective barriers for islands. Corals have been around for 200 million years and have survived dramatic environmental changes during that time. Though highly adaptable and tough creatures, scientists now know that corals and the reef structures they build are disappearing at unprecedented rates, largely attributable to human factors. Local human assaults on reefs include nutrient runoff in the form of sewage, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, physical damage, and overfishing. Global vectors include warming oceans which can lead to coral bleaching and now, a change in seawater pH due to the oceans absorbing too much of the atmospheric CO2 caused by humans burning fossil fuels. As the seawater becomes more acidic, the concentration of available calcium ions decreases. Calcium carbonates are necessary for building skeletons and shells for corals, certain “good” algae and other marine organisms.

Aboard Llyr, we have a lot more to learn about what is taking place in the oceans and in these local communities, but the stories we hear, and the scenes we are witnessing all indicate that a crisis is well underway. Ultimately, this crisis will affect not only reefs and South Pacific islanders, but people around the globe. Billions of years ago, life emerged from the oceans. Today, the oceans continue to make life on Earth possible: oceans are critical to our food chain; photosynthesizing plankton provide 50% of our oxygen; our weather is a product of the inextricable link between oceans and atmospheric circulation. These are just some of the incredible life-sustaining elements of the seas.

And lest this account portrays too much an image of people helplessly standing by while their world crumbles, there are many tales we can tell of people we’ve met who speak and act passionately about their lands and seas and the legacy for future generations. In a couple of short months, we will return to our farm and the forests of Heath. The ground will stop moving beneath our feet, and the familiar horizons of our hilltown will be welcome sights. We will continue to take inspiration from these encounters so that we may keep the oceans, the reefs and these communities in our sights as well, to help guide our actions on behalf of biocultural diversity from ridge-to-reef.

Suwarrow Atoll


Suwarrow is a coral atoll in the northern Cook Islands. Declared a national park several decades ago, its status was threatened in the 90s by government plans to commercialize the atoll as a base for fish processing and a site for pearl farming. A Cook Islands conservation group, the Te Ipukarea Society or TIS, launched the Save Our Suwarrow campaign and were successful in preventing the development.


Today, the only residents of the atoll are two caretakers, Harry and Charlie. They spend about 6 months of the year living in Suwarrow where Harry handles immigration and biosecurity for arriving yachts and they oversee visitors and researchers to the atoll.

Immigration formalities with Harry in Suwarrow

Immigration formalities in Suwarrow. Note the gift of Maple Syrup for Harry, who also serves as Park Ranger.

What’s biosecurity? In part, it refers to introduced biological threats to native habitats. For example, over the past two hundred years, rats arriving on vessels have driven more bird species to extinction than in any other region of the world. Suwarrow is considered and IBA, or “Important Bird Area”. Its importance as a breeding sanctuary for seabirds is enormous. It is home to 9% of the world’s population of Lesser Frigatebird, 3 % of the world’s Red-Tailed Tropicbird and a staggering 100,000 Sooty Tern!



Each morning, we’d watch as the terns flew overhead from their night roosts across the lagoon to their daytime island. We approached the small island by tender one day, being sure to keep a good distance, and were treated to the most incredible raucous symphony of bird song, and the sight of tens of thousands of terns swarming over the tiny, low lying island.



Some months prior to our arrival, Bird Life International and TIS had sponsored a trip to Suwarrow to undertake a rat eradication program. Worldwide, over half of all threatened birds are being driven to extinction by invasive species. In oceanic islands like Suwarrow, the figure is more like 75%. The rat eradication campaign in Suwarrow is critical to the survival of these incredible birds.


Birds are not the only protected species in Suwarrow. Sharks, which we saw in good numbers, are also protected in these waters. In fact, the Cook Islands has declared all of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters a shark sanctuary. This region is home to over 18 species of sharks, 15 of which are threatened or endangered. Pressures upon these populations come from fishing fleets seeking pelagic fish like Tuna, as well as shark fins for the Asian market. After the sharks are caught, their fins are removed and the sharks are thrown back into the sea where they soon drown. Its known that foreign fishing vessels shelter in Suwarrow’s lagoon when the caretakers are off island.



Sharks feeding inshore


The Cook Islands government has been very active in conservation projects. Further to the South begins the boundary for the Cook Islands Marine Park, established in 2012. Covering 1.1 million square kilometers and encompassing over half of the Cook’s EEZ, the park, once up and running, will be the largest one in the world. The government’s actions reflect a positive reframe available to Pacific Island states: rather than being considered small island states, they are, in fact, large ocean states. This is a much better description of the environment where most of their resources lay. Additionally, the Cooks government has made a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2020! Pretty great!

Our stay in Suwarrow was cut shorter than we’d hoped by weather.  While on the island, we managed to complete several Georeferenced GoPro Video Transects.  We were surprised and dismayed by the overall state of coral and fish biomass, but more on that later.



Llyr at Anchorage Island, Suwarrow (courtesy of Chuck)

Suwarrow coconuts


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA        One of Chuck’s great crab photos


Suwarrow coral

Up close and personal with the coral

Suwarrow hard coral


more Suwarrow coral



Rowan Scuba Rowan working on one of Llyr’s Georeferenced GoPro video transects in Suwarrow


Suwarrow Arrival


We are in Suwarrow, northern Cook Islands! We had a wild ride here with the most rugged weather we’ve had in over 5000 miles! Sustained 25-30 knot winds, gusting to 40 and 5 meter swell, though fortunately most often from our stern or back port side. At one point, we surfed down a wave at 13.5 knots!(that may not sound fast but for Llyr, that is FLYING!) Our overall speed for the trip was solidly over 6 knots.



The voyage turned really challenging in the last 24 hours. The waves became so big and fast (it isn’t only size that is an issue, but frequency and direction) that Brooks and Connor had to hand steer through the night since Llyr’s autopilot could not respond fast enough to the waves. They took 2-3 hour shifts. Arriving in Suwarrow in the dark at around 5am the winds were forecast to die, but instead picked up again to 35-40 knots in gusts. We weren’t sure we’d make the pass and even considered just heading on to Samoa, a trip of 5-6 days more. These passes into atolls can be pretty crazy, what with tides and reefs and funky currents.


We spoke by radio to a couple of boats in the anchorage who reassured us that we could do it, so we decided to give it a go.



We’d moved beyond the pass and had been hiding out in the lee of the island for a couple of hours to get out of the waves and wait for the light of day, so we had to turn back into them to return to the pass. We plunged bow-first into massive, short-period, five meter waves for over an hour, with winds gusting to 45 knots. Llyr’s bow buried in the seas as we made only 1 to 2 knots headway under full, roaring motor. Brooks wore ski-goggles and was clipped to a lifeline at the helm, working to counter forces of wind and wave and avoid broaching. Thankfully, I’d read about goggles somewhere and we’d remembered to bring a pair, since the waves regularly doused him! When we turned into the pass, it became a surf ride in at 8-11 knots, with Rowan on navigation, eyes glued to Llyr’s GPS track on our charts and google earth maps. Our relief upon entering the pass – which did turn out to be manageable despite the winds, dramatic standing waves, barely submerged reef structures and side shifting current– was immense. Hard to describe. Everyone hung in with only one case of seasickness (Gavin). Brooks and Connor were particularly magnificent at the wheel and kudos to Chuck for sitting up on deck with Brooks with a grin on his face while the waves crashed over them.


Suwarrow arrival


This is a spectacular place! Like the outer edge of the world that is never seen. Here is a google image, taken from Wiki. See that narrow pass on the northeast side?!



Moorea, French Polynesia

We arrived in Moorea after a short sail from Papeete and turned Llyr into Cook’s Bay, the first anchorage on the northern coast. We dropped anchor but were unable to get it set. A couple of other boats we know radioed to say they were headed over to the next bay where a cook out was to take place that night, so we gave up on getting a hold and headed further west. A brief motor brought us to Opunohu Bay where we could see most boats anchored at the mouth of the bay, just inside the fringing reef.The setting was beautiful. The jagged peaks of Mount Rotui loom over the bay.

moorea panorama

Right onshore next to the anchorage, a day camp for local kids meant that each day, dozens of small sailing boats zoomed around Llyr, filled with happy kids, having fun tacking alongside us and shouting out their greetings.

Moorea Sailing School


The beauty and fun above water, however, was not to be matched below.

Nutrient Indicator Algae

Nutrient Indicator Algae

We snorkeled the nearby reefs and found that one side of the pass was virtually dead, while the other showed only some small coral growth in shallow waters, although we did find a pretty cool wreck to explore. The situation with the reefs was grim. We needed answers as to what was going on and we were to find some of them on one of the fieldtrips we took on the island.

Three fieldtrips:

A) CRIOBE, the French acronym for The Insular Research Center and Environment Observatory field station.

At the head of Opunohu Bay, a paved road winds up the central valley of the island through pastureland. Right at its base lies this field station which welcomes French and international researchers. We stopped by briefly and were invited to attend a lecture where Canadian researchers were presenting on their studies of Pacific Northwest octopus! Chuck, meanwhile, had met up with the center director and had a brief exchange with him, which resulted in all of us returning the following week to learn about their work on FP reefs and tour the facility.

We met with biologist and center director, Dr. Yannick Chancerelle and Gilles Siu, a scientific diver and computer and math specialist. Here are some of the things we learned.

CRIOBE has been monitoring reefs in Moorea since 1971. Multiple factors led to the rubbly, dead reefs we had been seeing, the main one being a 2006 outbreak of Acanthaster (Crown of Thorns starfish) in the Society Islands, followed by a cyclone in 2010 which removed a lot of reef structure. As a result of these blows, according to Dr. the reef went from 40% coverage (which he indicated was good) to 0%. Current recovery is estimated to be about 5% on outer reefs (outer reefs fare better since they are more protected from inshore nutrient in the water). He indicated that it could take 10-15 years for recovery from such an assault. Other forces which slow recovery and that impact inshore reefs were listed as sewage, erosion from construction, agricultural run-of, and human contact with reefs.

While he didn’t initially include fishing as a vector impacting the reefs, at other points he related how overfishing is placing enormous pressure on the reefs. He reported that, unfortunately, there is no association of fishermen or any kind of collective organization among fishers, therefore there are no spokespeople from the local fishing community who can help provide oversight in marine protected areas.

Yannick introduced us to Gilles, a young Tahitian computer specialist who had recently secured a long-term contract with CRIOBE. Gilles was hired to set up live probes to measure oceanic variables and makes CRIOBE’s database available online. This led to learning fish counting and he is now employed by CRIOBE to take on fish surveys in several sites around the Pacific Ocean in addition to managing probes and the database. He had studied computers in France and had returned to Tahiti in the hopes of finding work. He reported that there aren’t many good job options for Polynesians with higher education and most of them remain abroad. He considered himself fortunate to find this work with CRIOBE and to be able to remain in Tahiti. (At the end of our meeting, he shared with us his deep-water photography: Spectacular images of creatures taken as deep as 100m!) He and Yannick showed us some of their data collection on a variety of reef measurements gathered from remote sensing buoys and grid surveys (among remote sensing measurements they were looking at temp, pH, etc). Interestingly, among there findings was some indication of warming waters (.33 degrees celcius in the last ten years.) They did not appear to find this significant and reported it was too short term for any conclusions to be drawn. In addition, the told us that their pH measurements – which would have interested us somewhat – were useless since the monitor was not sensitive enough and kept breaking down all the time.

We appreciated their taking the time to tour us around the facility and talk about their work. They seemed pretty enthusiastic about the idea of using Llyr for access to other island groups, but the timing was not right. Most of all, it gave Llyr’s crew a lot of food for thought about the nature of scientific research in the context of climate change, and about the problems of conservation where scientific knowledge and local knowledge have no common platform.

B) The Agricultural School (Lycée Agricole d’Opunohu (Opunohu Agricultural School), located 4 km further up the road from CRIOBE

The school system in FP is the French system. Among the islands, we’ve learned that children receive their primary education locally, but if they are to continue on, they usually have to leave home and board somewhere more centralized so that they can pursue further schooling. (more on this educational crisis in the Pacific later!)

The Lycee is FP’s high school for students interested in agriculture and draws students from across FP. It serves about 200 kids, ages14-18, roughly. Kids learn such skills as crop farming, horticulture, livestock farming, landscape design, and ways to create value-added products. We enjoyed some incredible ice cream made at the school using their own fruits and purchased a selection of exquisite jams, with flavors like nothing we’d tried before.

School was not in session, but during vacation periods the facility serves as a tourism destination, run by local staff, who also keep up with all the farming in the absence of the student farmers! Several (confusing) trails meander through the property where you can learn, with the assistance of a guidebook, about the various crops they grow and and how they can be used.

Given what we’ve seen and learned about farming and food in the Marquesas and Tuamotus, it was an interesting place to visit.

Moorea hike, inland view

We made this visit with a trio of teens from another boat, and as we left the school, our boys joined them to hike further up the road to the Belvedere Lookout. They panoramic view of the valley and the two bays on either side of Mount Rotui looked dramatic in their photos.

view from Belvedere Lookout

The Hilton Resort

Our third fieldtrip took us over to the Hilton Resort! There, we attended a talk by Dr. Michael Poole on the dolphins and whales in French Polynesian waters. Michael Poole is a friend of Pamela and Alain of GEMM whom we met back in Rangiroa. Most of the attendees were cruisers (if I haven’t mentioned this elsewhere, this refers to people living on boats!) as the word about the talk had spread through the anchorage and one of the sailors had actually gone to graduate school with him; however, there were a couple of honeymoon couples present as well, those constituting the more typical audience at these weekly talks. Hilton, as part of their “Green and Socially Responsible” efforts, pays Dr. Poole to make these weekly presentations to their guests on marine mammals. We learned a lot of very interesting facts, including confirmation that what we saw during our sail along Nuku Hiva’s east coast, were indeed hundreds of rare, protected melon-headed whales! Overall, however, many of us were somewhat dismayed by a sense of greenwashing of the difficult issues facing marine environments. Clearly, this could be considered a limitation of the setting: Probably not too many honeymooners in Paradise want to hear gloom and doom about the oceans! A few of us yachties stirred things up with challenging questions and the talk went on a lot longer than typical, or so Dr. Poole indicated. Afterward, the conversations among Llyr’s crew focused on greenwashing and the conundrums of public outreach, as well as the challenges of obtaining financial support for conservation work while in the lion’s den.




Rangiroa to Mo’orea, French Polynesia

Rangiroa, in the Tuamotus, is the 3rd largest atoll in the world (I couldn’t tell you where numbers 1 & 2 are; our guidebook doesn’t say!). We arrived after an overnight sail from Ahe, timing our entry into Tiputa Pass, one of two navigable passes on the atoll. If you miss the timing, the pass becomes a wild funnel of hard and fast current and large standing waves. We witnessed this wild energy under a full moon a couple of nights later, from the safety of shore.

The pass is famous for Bottlenose dolphins. Brooks dropped Connor and Rowan off near the pass exit to do a drift dive and they were surrounded by the dolphins. Such an encounter is a powerful and privileged one and the guys were pretty awestruck! Their experience was also shaped by facts we’d learned shortly after our arrival in Rangiroa. We visited the home of a small non-profit organization called GEMM (www.gemm.org) (in association with French and American universities), run by a couple named Pamela and Alain, that focuses on marine mammals. (The name GEMM translates as: Study Group for Marine Mammals.) Here in Rangiroa, they study the dolphins; later in the season they’ll head further west in FP, to Raiatae, where they’ll engage in humpback whale and spinner dolphin research. On this atoll, in additional to their scientific studies of the dolphins, they are embroiled, to varying degrees, with the 6 dive operators who sell dolphin encounters to tourists, and in some cases, promote touching the dolphins. While the researchers of GEMM fully appreciate and share the human interest in being in the water with these animals, they object to the lengths to which some operators go to provide a thrill for their customers. It is commonplace for people to think of dolphins as friendly mammals of the sea. Their “smile” misleads us into a sense of camaraderie, but as Pamela bluntly described: “They “smile” even in death!” Dolphins are wild animals, she stressed, and dive operators who promote and encourage the touching of wild animals are exploiting them for economic gain. While contact with dolphins is illegal in FP, there is little to no regulation or oversight way out here. During their 5 years of dolphin research, they have observed dolphin behavior changing as a result of these engagements and shared with us footage of divers touching dolphins and, in one case, being pushed around by a dolphin. They’re concerned about the long term behavioral effects, as well as with the potential for disease spread across species.

The tourism industry sells more wildlife encounters than just dolphins. Before leaving Rangiroa, we completed our Pacific Reef Check Ecodiver training, conducting a survey on a site known as “The Aquarium”: lots of fish and moderately healthy coral in patches. The dive boats feed the fish and eels at this site to entertain the tourists, so we were often surrounded by snappers and, on one trip, saw 4 large Moray eels coming out to take advantage of the easy meal. It felt somewhat like a zoo.

A short sail of a few hours took us across the lagoon where we spent two days anchored in pale blue, calm waters, surrounded by black tip sharks. At one point, we counted 15 circling Llyr! Black tips are fairly shy, so we felt safe in assuming that tour boats must feed them on this side of the atoll as they do on the other, making them approach boats more regularly.

We left Rangiroa on a calm afternoon, making our way out of the pass and circumnavigating the atoll, headed for Tahiti, and the capital of Papeete. We commented on what a pleasant sail we were having and laughed about how that was sure to change. And sure enough, it did. By 9 in the evening, the winds had climbed up to about 30 knots with very confused seas, once again pitching the boat side to side and making for a rough and uncomfortable sail.

Our trip to Papeete was about 36 hours (two nights and a day) bringing us into the capital early in the morning. Tahiti juts out of the ocean in tall jagged spires and sloping mounts. It is surrounded by a barrier reef which has protected the shoreline from storms and provided calm waters for boats. Approaching Papeete, the reef is visible only as a breaking wave. We entered the pass and motored along the inner waterway between the shoreline and reef to Marina Taina, our first marina since Panama (and our first real showers in over two and a half months!!)

We didn’t get much time to travel around Tahiti; instead, we were busy with provisioning, cleaning and repairs, doing a little visiting with other boats, and getting ready for the arrival of Benjamin, a friend and high school senior who will be interning with us for the next two months. Our few trips in and out of town by bus made us aware of the limited public transportation system and the heavy reliance on private automobiles. We hadn’t seen people or cars in this concentration for a long time!

While we were not able to get underwater during our time in Tahiti, Chuck had the opportunity to make a couple of dives with one of the local operators and came back to report dead coral and lots of algae.
With Ben on board, we were eager to leave Tahiti and head to Mo’orea, hoping for better waters, and the possibility of getting Gavin certified as a SCUBA diver. Reports of an incoming weather system with lots of wind also required us to leave the mooring ball at Marina Taina. Mo’orea is only about 15 miles from Papeete; we were aiming for Cook’s Bay (named after that sailor who preceded us there by a few hundred years).

Here is how the Lonely Planet Guide describes diving in Mo’orea: “Mo’orea is one of French Polynesia’s main underwater playgrounds, which is no surprise considering its high visibility and clean waters. The underwater scenery is every bit the equal of what’s on land: you can dive sloping reefs and go nose-to-nose with sharks, rays and numerous reef species.”

Here is what we have seen so far: lots of dead coral and algae.

At the nearby Hilton, the iconic over-the-water bungalows are surrounded by classic turquoise blue waters, but in between the white sand patches there is mainly dead coral and choking algae. While we’ve yet to dive the outer reef, we’ve heard it isn’t much better, and the dive operators, as in Rangiroa, are resorting to selling impressive dive experiences by feeding the sharks and rays so that they gather around in large congregations. Fisheries are reportedly finished in Mo’orea. We’ve been told that most fish now come from the Tuamotus and Marquesas, as we had observed there. We have yet to hear local accounts of the disappearance of the fishing industry in Mo’orea.

If the reefs aren’t growing and adding new skeleton aloft, storm surge will overwhelm the reef. Add to that sea level rise, and, well, these shorelines are facing a difficult future. (We’ll write more on the complex nature of coral reefs in a future posting.) We have a meeting planned with some scientists at one of the environmental research institutes here in Mo’orea: CRIOBE (www.criobe.org) and hope to learn a lot more about what has happened and is happening to these reefs.

I am reminded that when I last left off with this blog in Ahe, I was wondering how heading towards more touristed settings might affect our perceptions of environmental conditions. A picture is developing, and it isn’t pretty. Our human appetites are immense, and those of us with a few resources are eager to consume at a scale which is not sustainable. That goes for us aboard Llyr as well. Our footprints lie heavy on the planet. I’ve read that if everyone consumed like the average westerner, we’d need about 7 planets to provide for us! Out here, I’m feeling it! This planet is breaking under our weight. Whether we’re “consuming” electronics from Best Buy, or a broccoli that has traveled from France to the Tuamotus, or even an aesthetic experience on a beach or a woods hike, we can’t seem to avoid heavy tread. I’ve heard that Mount Everest is littered with oxygen bottles left behind by climbers. Today I read that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has a long term study (22 years) with over 18,000 hours of footage from deep sea ROVs (remotely-operated vehicles) showing human -made garbage everywhere off the coast of California, as deep as 13,000 feet.

While I work to be a strong advocate and help raise awareness, I’m not sure how effectively I can lighten my load or that of my children. I’m not sure if we, as a species, can do what it takes to halt the 6th wave of extinction that we humans have set in motion.

Slowly Sinking in Paradise, by Chuck

Slowly Sinking in Paradise.

Research Vessel Llyr, my sailing home for 2 and a half months this summer, is now in French Polynesia, visiting the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Tahiti groups of Islands. The Tuamotus are coral atolls, which average 5 feet above sea level, although much of the residential areas are within about two feet of current high tide. If the most widely accepted predictions about sea level are correct, the Tuamotus will become uninhabitable by mid-century.

It is wonderful and sad and a little weird to be here in this place that looks like the classic cover of a travel magazine: beaches, coconut palms, turquoise waters, women with Gauguin faces, and at the same time to be reading John Englander’s new book High Tide on Main Street; Rising Sea Levels and the Coming Coastal Crisis. Here, future sea level rise stares us in the face each day through the low shorelines. When I see a baby or a pregnant woman, I can only think that those children will not be able to spend their lives where their voyageur ancestors settled centuries ago, the islands of their culture and heritage.

The book, High Tide on Main Street, collects and explains the scientific literature on ocean level increase, and this is not a new concept to those who have been reading about climate. Nevertheless to see it all pulled together is a very sobering read, which I highly recommend.

I recently sent a note to family and friends quoting a recent study observing that for each degree Celsius of temperature increase, the sea has risen to reach an equilibrium of 65 feet higher. My old friend and fellow environmental warrior, Peter Bachman, who pays close attention to stuff he reads, challenged me on that, because the prediction in this century is for maybe 2 degrees Celsius increase (we already have .8) and the main line scientific consensus is for only 4 to 5 feet of ocean increase. But my report was accurate from the perspective of geological time, because it is referring to ultimate equilibrium. Here’s the quote from Englander’s book:

In 2008, Dr. David Archer showed what happens over longer periods of time when temperatures, ice sheets and sea levels reach a new equilibrium. Using the work of glaciologist Dr. Richard Alley, his analysis showed that sea level has changed by a stunning 20 meters, (65 feet) for every degree of change Celsius (1.8 degrees F. Since the oceans and atmosphere have warmed almost one full degree, it is just a matter of time before sea level adjusts according to this historic relationship.

Englander points out that this study shows, with the .8 degree increase we already have, “based on 40 million years of actual history, not theoretical projections, sea levels will rise more than 50 feet, …once the ice has had time to melt. “ The melting of Antarctica and Greenland ice caps will be responsible for about 95 percent of sea level rise ultimately and the process will take at least centuries (if the predictions about tipping points come true) or perhaps millennia, but the RATE of melting is many thousands of times more rapid than the Earth has experienced in previous naturally-caused warmings.

2 years ago, Steve Piragis, Martha Brand and I were standing at the calving edge of the Illiulissat Glacier in Greenland, the largest outside of Antarctica, which is moving now at several times the rate of a few decades ago and accelerating. (Its dramatic calving was the feature of James Balog’s documentary, Chasing Ice. ) Thinking back about that view of the massive 2 mile high ice sheet oozing down into the fjord and out to sea, I now understand that we were witnessing the birth of a new era in the earth’s history, one that will last for thousands of years, and the first to be actually caused by our species.

I am sailing west across the Pacific with a unique family on the Research Vessel Llyr, a 53-foot ketch sailboat, on a 2 fold-mission for 2013: first, to observe, document and analyze social and economic changes from such environmental insults as climate change and overfishing as they impact coastal communities and coral reefs ; and second, to do diving surveys to document the health of coral reefs for Reef Check, a citizen science program for reef monitoring worldwide. The Dad/Skipper, Brooks McCutchen is a former practicing psychoanalyst. Janis Steele, the Mom, is a PhD. Anthropologist and former documentary filmmaker. Both are now Maple Syrup Farmers in Massachusetts, and focus on the cultural politics and economics of small-scale, sustainable food production and marketing. The 3 boys, Connor, 18 (the First Mate), Rowan 15, and Gavin 10, all at home underwater, could not be more enthusiastic about being a real part of the project. I’ll add what I can as a survey diver, an environmental advocate, recovering lawyer, aspiring underwater photographer, and writer. In 2014, they also expect to be based in Vanuatu as a service vessel, assisting communities to adjust to the impacts of a changing environment.

Upon reflection, it does not seem strange that the natives here are not shouting to the industrialized countries to stop burning fossil fuel, because neither are most of the citizens of Miami, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, and Sacramento, other costal areas which will be devastated by the end of this century, although some defensive measures are finally being taken. As a nation, we too continue our struthious (ostrich like) outlook, taking care of immediate needs while ignoring those of our grandchildren. We live in the moment: this week, this month, this year, not this century.

Yet, Englander does not close with total gloom and doom (which of course doesn’t work and destroys hope). While recognizing that adaptation to sea level rise is inevitable, and will cost many billions, he of course notes that reducing carbon producing energy sources is the only hope of bending the rising curve of atmospheric and ocean carbon. He closes with a famous quote from Winston Churchill as England and the free world faced the terror of the Third Reich:

If we fail, then the whole world. …Including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age….. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if we last for a thousand years, men will still say, “this was their finest hour.”

The wartime quote highlights the reality of our situation. We need a commitment equal to that which was required to fight and win a world war and we don’t have it. The other night, on board, we watched Les Miserables and I thought, perhaps those of us who are trying to build a real movement are like the young French revolutionaries on the barricades, expecting the multitudes to rise in support, which doesn’t happen. I hope that’s not true, and I am hopeful that the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way as evidenced by the responses to Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s recent climate speech. Perhaps the reality of sea level rise will be the thing that finally wakes us up to the need for more commitment to action. Momentum, momentum, momentum.

But, don’t buy any waterfront property.

On to the Tuamotous

The South Pacific islands have long held a mystique in western consciousness. From Captain Cook to Margaret Mead, stories of sexual liberties and cannibalistic appetites have fueled our fantasies and fears. I know I come with my own preconceptions, but as I travel across this vast ocean, with its far flung island communities, I’m curious to learn more about the richness of Polynesian history: languages, arts, and mythologies that, thanks to early Polynesians’ incredible navigational skills, continue to unite peoples across thousands of miles. It is a remarkable fact that words spoken in the Marquesas can, with some care, be understood by Maoris in New Zealand, thousands of miles away!


We have now made two landfalls: Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas and Ahe atoll in the Tuamotus. Though only three and a half days apart by sail, they offer a stunning pallet for the senses as well as plenty of food for thought regarding biocultural diversity. From the rugged peaks, lush forests, and dark, plankton-rich seas of the Marquesas to the low-lying, clear waters of coral atolls in the Tuamotus, the beauty of each is unique; yet I can’t help wonder about earlier migrations of Polynesians who chose the rubbly, narrow bracelets of islands, motus, that ring coral-rich lagoons versus those who settled the loftier terrains of young volcanic islands. More than that, I wonder about the fates of these communities today, impacted by globalization and its multiple forces and effects, including those of a changing climate.


French Polynesia, like many regions of the world, is in economic crisis today. We are led to understand that since France has terminated its controversial nuclear testing in the Tuamotus (between 1966 and 1996 this created over 100,000 jobs!), since the Black Pearl market has been devastated by commodity-scale actions taken in China and elsewhere, and with the recession in tourism, jobs have been hard to come by. The capital of Papeete continues to draw outer-islanders who hope for work, but we’ve heard again and again that unemployment in the capital remains high along with the cost of living, and life is very hard. In contrast, people on the outer islands say that at least at home, there is community to take care of you and costs are lower. This is hardly a unique tale. According to our observations, the Marquesas have some distinct advantages in this crisis. Food for the picking is everywhere on these islands—mangoes, bananas, breadfruit, grapefruit, limes and more – as well as an abundance of fish in the surrounding seas whereas this atoll of Ahe appears to have plenty of fish but little else that is indigenous. Coconut palms, imported long ago, provide a cash crop called “copra”which is a widespread in these atolls and is exported to Tahiti where the government subsidizes it in order to support island livelihoods.


While all the islands of FP depend upon the regular supply ships that arrive from Tahiti, the atolls appear more dependent upon them for day to day living than the Marquesas, given the dearth of fresh foods. These atolls have also undergone the recent boom and bust of the black pearl trade which collapsed a little over a decade ago following overproduction, Chinese knock-offs, and depressed earnings for harvesters. This has left clear signs of a community that has directly suffered the effects of large-scale commodity markets, with abandoned farms rimming the reefs. While signs of commodity pressures are not as immediately evident in Nuku Hiva, in our own experience passage-making and by local account, the rapacious fishing fleets from Japan, Korea and China, are beginning to strip the waters clean. Henri, a local in Taiohae whom we spoke with extensively, expressed concern that in future, should his grandchildren wish to continue fishing, this might not be an option for them.


Henri plans to run for mayor in 2014 and is part of a council seeking sustainable development strategies for the island. He lamented the impact of cash economies on lifestyles and values, but likewise recognized the need to develop some strategies that would provide people with wages. He spoke of small, local initiatives to develop artisanal vinegars and honeys, as well as larger plans for a cooperative business for the export of goat meat. When we asked him about climate change and what we should say to people in the US, he described an image of American power plants, factories and cars belching pollution. Then he added, jokingly, “Atomic bomb!”This was his same mock solution when asked about foreign fishing fleets depleting fish stocks: “Too many mouths to feed. Atomic bomb!” This repeated reference struck us as particularly poignant given France’s decades of bomb testing in the region and ongoing disputes about long term environmental and human health impacts.


As we walked the paved streets of Tenukupara, Ahe’s sole village that is roughly 3 blocks by 3 blocks existing on a small motu between the breakers of the ocean and the shelter of the lagoon, we couldn’t help wonder about where this atoll will be the decades to come given the forecast for a rising sea level. Somewhat remarkable to us, our conversations with community members did not elicit similar concerns. For example, the police chief, a school teacher, and a shopkeeper were all well aware of such warnings, but reported that either they were secondary to the current economic crisis, or, in one case, were God’s punishment for homosexuality! In Nuku Hiva, sea level rise poses threat to the coastal villages, yet there is the option to move to higher grounds if necessary. No such options exist on the 77 atolls that constitute the Tuamotus. They will simply disappear under the sea.


Today, we head to Rangiroa, the second largest atoll in the world, 90 miles to the west of Ahe. Here, children of Ahe must relocate for school if they wish to continue studying as teenagers. Tourism is reportedly more robust. Several dive operators work in the atoll and diving is considered world-class. I wonder how my impressions of the Tuamotus might change with our time there? Plenty of evidence from around the world shows that tourism is a double-edged sword in terms of community well-being; too often, biological and cultural diversity become packaged for western consumption. As we sail towards more heavily touristed regions of the South Pacific, we’ll see how this impacts the island communities and the local ecosystems.

Traveling Nuka Hiva

We rented a car for the day to drive across the island to visit some of the peaks, waterfalls, and archaeological sites. On Nuku Hiva, the remains of old villages—some dating to the 13th century–can be found all around. The early Marquesans used boulders and rocks that are strewn about this old volcanic island to build walls and various structures that still stand in place. There are two principal roads on the island that climb up over the central ridges: one heads to the airport and the other heads to the northeastern corner. We took the latter and found ourselves bumping along on a dirt road, with vistas of waterfalls and plunging canyons, and with lots of birdsong. There are no snakes or poisonous insects in the Marquesas so we felt fine tramping off into the forest edges, stopping to visit with the roaming horses and wild goats, and wandering through ancient villages.



A few days later, we hoisted anchor and set sail around the eastern shore of the island, bound for Anaho Bay. Anaho is a spectacular, protected bay on the north shore. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote pages eulogizing its beauty; we’ll have to find that when we’re back in Heath.

Coming to Anaho Bay

Anaho Bay


Anaho Bay is the first place where we’ve come across several kids boats. Gavin has had a wild time playing with kids in the water on kayaks and floaties. We don’t seem too worried about the Black Tip sharks swimming about nearby.

A 30 minute trek along the shore and over a small pass takes us to a farm where we are able to buy more fruits and vegetables. We have a long talk with the farmers about how they make a living and what weather and pest challenges they face on the farm.

Maria's Farm

Taiohae Fishermen


We stay a few days in the Bay before heading back to Taiohae and plans for one more stop on Nuku Hiva: Daniel’s Bay.

Manta Rays in Taiohae


Above is a photo of Manta Rays in Taiohae Bay that we took from our tender.  As we left for Daniel’s Bay, out boat was surrounded by them.  We’ve since learned that when they travel in long processions, it is in preparation for mating.

There is a 2 hour hike  in Daniel’s Bay that brings one to the 3rd largest waterfall in the world!  Gavin here could not help finding every rock and cave to climb and explore.

Gavin at the waterfall near Daniel's Bay





Nuka Hiva, Marquesas

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas


Taiohae Bay. We’ve read about it in such classics as Melville’s Typee, and Jack London’s Voyage of the Snark. Here we are, anchored in this large, crescent bay surrounded by steep, lush mountains. This, or one of the other Marquesan islands, is welcome landfall for many tired sailors hailing from Panama, like ourselves, or Mexico, or even Hawaii.


Nuku Hiva is the hopping off point for Bri and Rob, who plan to make their way across the Pacific by boat-hopping. We’ll miss their willingness to dive in, work, and get dirty (or just extremely salty!), their readiness to play games and laugh over a joke, and their good cooking! (Connor will also miss Bri’s guitar!) We shared a huge experience together as 7 people in a small, pitching vessel out of sight of land for over a month. We wish them well on their journey, wherever it may take them, and look forward to following their stories at their website onthehorizonline.com


Nuku Hiva is also where our new crew member, Chuck Dayton, joins us. Chuck has done a lot of sailing in different parts of the world. He is also a diver and photographer and will be photo-documenting much of our journey forward and themes of climate change in the South Pacific. He is also preparing blog reports for the Minnesota Chapter of the Sierra Club. Chuck was drawn to Llyr’s mission and will be on expedition with us for about 8 weeks until we reach Tonga. During his time aboard Llyr, he will also train to become a Pacific Reef Check Eco Diver.


We’ll spend some time here in Nuku Hiva, exploring this beautiful island, before heading on to the Tuamotus.


Connor's Graduation at Sea