Fantastic voyage


POSTED: Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Using new diving technology, scientists discovered vistas of coral reefs and fishes never before seen in ocean depths of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The National Oceanic and Atmos- pheric Administration ship Hi'ialakai returned Sunday from a pioneering, monthlong expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that participants declared a huge success at a news conference yesterday.

“;Everything was fantastic, exciting and fun,”; said Bishop Museum ichthyologist Richard Pyle, who collected a fresh specimen of a butterfly fish in 200 feet of water that he needed for a proper scientific description.

“;It's not like a new discovery in the sense that nobody knew it existed before,”; he said, noting he had collected a couple of specimens of the striped, black-and-white butterfly fish years ago off the Kona coast and off Oahu, and it had been seen from submersibles.

But it is un-described, he said. “;If you're going to name a new species, you want a fresh specimen. The species was waiting for more than a decade to be properly described.”;

;[Preview]  NOAA Ship Returns With Things Never Seen Before

A NOAA research vessel is just back from an expedition and scientists say they found things never before seen by humans.

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The 18 researchers on the Hi'ialakai also found unique beds of algae at the 200-foot depth serving as nursery habitat for juvenile deep-water coral fishes, such as masked, Japanese and bandit angelfish.

Randall Kosaki, deputy superintendent of the monument and lead scientist and diver for the research mission, said “;the big-picture story”; is the researchers were able to explore depths never accessed before using a “;trimix”; of oxygen, nitrogen and helium.

He said there are better maps of the moon than of the Northwestern Hawaiian Island coral reef archipelago because most diving work has been in shallow water, 60 to 80 feet deep, and coral reefs are at 300 feet or more. Submersibles work at about 400 feet and deeper, so there is a “;no man's land”; between normal diving limits and submersibles, he said.

Collaborating to help plug that gap with dives at depths of 200 to 275 feet on the recent expedition were scientists from NOAA, the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and Bishop Museum.

The Hi'ialakai will leave again Sept. 17 for the monument for a Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program.

Pyle said he has been doing deep diving many years and has used the trimix method in other parts of the Pacific, but they are “;logistically intensive dives,”; he said. “;It's a bit of orchestration to have the right number of safety divers and timing. Part of the reason for the cruise was to demonstrate overwhelming success.”;

Kelly Gleason, a maritime archaeologist with the monument and technical dive coordinator, said six divers made 111 dives—“;an amazing feat to itself. Every dive was an opportunity to see something new.”;

“;It was spectacular,”; said diver Ray Boland, a biologist with the NOAA Fisheries Service. “;It surprised me more than I expected.”;

The monument is 1,400 miles from Honolulu and stretches 1,200 miles, including Nihoa, Mokumanamana and Laysan islands, and Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

It was nominated by the United States in January as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site for both its natural and cultural attributes.

Two UNESCO evaluators joined the expedition to look at the endemic species, archaeological remains and restored habitats. They wanted to see whether the co-trustees are capable of managing and protecting them, Kosaki said.

Kosaki said the reefs are in “;very good shape,”; but the scientists saw some coral bleaching because of warmer-than-usual waters. The temperature was cooling, but the long-term impact of global warming is a major concern and “;an alarm to the international community,”; he said.

It was the fifth cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for Brian Bowen, HIMB professor of biology and fish genetics, who said the archipelago “;is the most beautiful place in the world. The whole world recognizes this as special.”;

But he said there is pressure from the fisheries community and, to some extent, the recreational sector for access to the islands. Designating the area as a World Heritage Site would add some weight to efforts to protect it, he said.

Bowen said he has seen increased debris on the islands over the five years, with fish, turtles and seabirds snagged and dying. “;There is hope in the long run with education,”; he said.