Explorations of waters betweenUH researcher honored By Helen Altonn
Maui and Lanai lead to a proposal
for a marine conservation district
A6-foot octopus, dense colonies of black coral, a forest of plants and -- most surprisingly -- an ancient freshwater lake were among the wonders seen by scientists in recent explorations of waters between Maui and Lanai.
Diving in one-person submersibles, oceanographers Sylvia Earle, National Geographic's explorer-in-residence, and Richard Grigg of the University of Hawaii surveyed an area in the Auau Channel about two miles long and a half-mile wide.
The site is at depths ranging from 120 to 240 feet. But Grigg believes it was a lake about 20,000 years ago. Notches around the basin provide evidence that fresh water once filled it and dissolved the limestone, he said.
"It's incredible," he said, pointing out that sea level was about 400 feet lower at the peak of the last ice age. "On Maui you could walk all the way across to Lanai if humans were there."
The oceanographers are proposing that the state establish the unique area as a marine life conservation district for research, education and chartered tours.
Bottom-fishing and black coral harvesting would be banned to allow the resources to recover and "to create a natural area in deep water which will be the first of its kind in Hawaii," Grigg said.
He suggests calling it the Lahaina Roads Marine Preserve, using the name given to the area by Jack Ackerman, who discovered the black coral in 1958.
William Devick, acting administrator of the state Aquatic Resources Division, said "it's an excellent concept" that merits serious consideration.
Earle is excited about Grigg's idea of establishing a preserve to protect the ecosystem and serve as a standard to evaluate changes elsewhere.
She recommended extending the boundary to include a surrounding forest of halimeda, a green alga resembling little cactus plants. "They actively precipitate calcium carbonate out of the ocean," she said.
The sand in the area surrounding Lahaina Roads looks like oatmeal because of little plant chips, she said. "It is really quite beautiful, a very rich and productive habitat in its own right, a place where young fish find shelter and food."
Black coral doing wellGrigg was invited to investigate the health of black coral beds as part of a Sustainable Seas Expedition led by Earle in the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
The five-year Sustainable Seas Expeditions program, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is focusing on 12 U.S. marine sanctuaries.
One goal is to provide baseline data on the state of the ocean environment to gauge whether human or natural changes will occur and to help shape policies, Earle said.
The scientists are identifying places to establish monitoring stations or underwater observatories for long-term assessment of the sanctuaries, she said.
An acoustic listening post is proposed in the water off Kona to follow the comings and goings of whales, she said. Oceanographers hope to determine why whales tend to concentrate in some areas and shun others.
Diving in Deepworker 2000 submersibles leased from Hawaii-based American Deepwater Engineering, Grigg and Earle looked at one of the most heavily harvested black coral areas.
Reporting "very good news," Grigg said he found a steady amount of new coral emerging. "It's not diminished at all from levels before harvesting took place."
He said they saw about 150 colonies in the proposed reserve. "It was very, very dense, an abundant population, but the largest was 3 feet tall," he said, adding this indicates divers were following harvesting laws on size.
Grigg said he made three dives in the Deepworker for training, and three for science. "I was a little apprehensive," he said, noting that while he has probably made 50 submersible dives for research, someone else was always the pilot.
"It was the most emotional underwater experience I've ever had," he said. "First of all, you're all alone." And the battery-powered submersible has about 20 systems that "you have to keep your eye on constantly."
Grigg and Earle followed each other about 30 feet apart as they cruised the ocean bottom. "We made a good team," he said. "I did geology; she did biology. Her eye sees everything down to one-fourth inch in size ... and I'm always looking for big things."
Dances with octopusBut it was Earle who saw one of the more intriguing large deep-sea inhabitants: an octopus "as big as Rick."
She was on her last dive Jan. 19 just off Lanai at a depth of about 1,300 feet, with National Geographic photographer Kip Evans in the second submersible.
"It was a nice long dive, almost three hours," she said. After Evans lifted off, she said she saw what she thought was some plastic hanging in the water.
"It turned out to have eyes -- an enormous octopus ... a wonderful creature. She inspected me while I inspected her."
UH oceanographer Dick Young identified the octopus from her video as an unusual species about which little is known. He said it's unique in its octopod family, and a female with eggs.
"This is only the second time this particular animal was ever filmed alive in its habitat," said Young, who took the only other pictures in 1992 at a depth of about 900 feet off the Big Island.
Earle feared the octopus she encountered would swim away, but said "she was really just curious. She came over, right on top of the sub, and looked in with that great dark eye of hers, and I was looking back at her. We began this dance," each moving with the other, she described.
"It was just a magnificent experience. Finally, I had to leave her. I ran out of time."
Science blended with other memorable sights. At a point where the ocean bottom starts to drop off, Grigg said he saw a beautiful bed of about 500 heart sea urchins "plowing ahead like a herd of buffalo in the sand." Their paddle-shaped spines were waving in the submarine's light. "Sylvia was just mesmerized by this."
Looking down from the precipice of a 200-foot cliff, Grigg said he could see about 100 pink snapper, or ehu, which swam up to him with some 3-feet-long yellow-tail, a Hawaiian salmon.
"I'm just surrounded in this kind of tornado of fish, just circling me. It's pitch dark, and the (submarine) lights are lighting up this underwater seascape."
Perched at the edge of the precipice, 400 feet from the ocean surface, he said he asked, "'Sylvia, what do you think?' She said, 'Let's go for it.'
"So I sail off this cliff, down deeper and deeper. She's above me. ... She's right in the middle of the fish in the submarine above me sinking down."
With their batteries running down after four hours, he said, "We left the bottom together. What a thrill. ... It was pretty phenomenal to be able to dive in this little guy and with her."
Earle said the underlying interest in maintaining sustainable seas "is that humankind is totally, absolutely and completely dependent on the ocean, wherever on the planet we live. The sea is the cornerstone of our life support system."
The overall mission of the expeditions is exploration, research and education, she said, "so we spend quite a lot of time focusing on kids.
"Obviously, we have to have a good scientific backbone. We're committed right up front to involving youngsters as partners and participants and engaging them, because they will be the stewards of the future."
University of Hawaii oceanographer Richard Grigg recently was honored by the Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences with its 1999 award for lifetime achievements in underwater science.
He was cited for significant contributions during his career "to our knowledge of both shallow- and deep-water marine environments, particularly coral reefs."
The researcher, professor and author received the award at a meeting in Las Vegas sponsored by the academy and the diving industry.
Among the sponsors present was oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who has been in Hawaii conducting a National Geographic Sustainable Seas Expedition.
James Cameron, who produced the films "Titanic" and "The Abyss," also was awarded by the academy for "establishing a new standard for excellence in the underwater arts."
Helen Altonn, Star-Bulletin