Each year since 2009, the Seattle Aquarium has sent a team of staff members to Hawaii to conduct reef fish and coral health research along the northwestern side of the Big Island. Get an insider’s glimpse at this year’s trip with notes and pictures from Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson. Catch up with part 1 of the series here.
Day 4: Thursday, January 31
Our third day of fieldwork. Thus far we have surveyed only two out of our eight sites! And we have only three more dive days. We headed down to Kailua-Kona to meet with Mark Johnston and his Parker 25 boat. We planned to dive sites 3, 4 and 8 today if the conditions allowed. We started with site 8, which has beds of acropora coral, previously thought to be found only in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and not on the Big Island. We only had enough tanks for one dive team, so Amy and I planned to do three transects on one tank of air. We had trouble finding the site start point because the bottom looked different than it did last year due to winter storms scouring the sand—but eventually we found it and completed the work. Afterward, we headed back to sites 3 and 4 and completed four surveys.
In addition to the reef surveys, we were able to collect water samples from all three sites for all analyses (except microplastics, because we were on the boat and we didn’t have room for all the gear). Next, after a quick rinse-off at the park, we met up with our primary research partners at the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), Dr. Bill Walsh and associates. We took them to dinner to discuss the results of the research. Everyone was excited to hear about the first 10 years of results and what we’re seeing this year: the fish look like they’ve increased. By how much will have to wait for the formal counts, but some of the corals are not looking good and some acropora heads were dead. We’re not sure if the coral deaths were caused by storms, poor water quality or ocean warming. Our water quality analyses should give us some idea.
Day 5: Friday, February 1
Our fourth day of fieldwork. Today we needed to try to get our core Puako sites (1, 2 and 5) done. The swell was still too big to access from shore safely so we had to charter a boat through Kohala Divers. Before leaving the dock, we gathered a microplastics sample with help from the captain and crew.
After a short boat ride to site 5, we could see the swell was too big for even the boat to access—but it was low tide, so we decided to try again when the tide was higher. We motored to site 1 and access was no problem. We got sites 1 and 2 surveyed without issues and collected water samples for nutrients, toxics and fecal indicator bacteria.
We headed back to site 5 and it looked diveable so Chris, Amy and I jumped in. There were a few large swells that decreased the visibility significantly underwater but we were able to get our surveys done safely. On our way back to the marina the captain abruptly stopped the boat—luckily, we were all sitting down. As we wondered what could have made him stop so suddenly, we saw two humpbacks surface just behind our boat! They swam toward us, alongside the boat, and surfaced about 15 feet from the boat. We were all amazed to see these beautiful and majestic animals so close. What a day! Amazing!
We were very happy to get all our sites surveyed. It’s a great relief to know that, even with big swells, we were able to get it done. That night we were hosted for dinner by our longtime friend and supporter, Narand Patel, who used to own the Puako general store and has supported our research for the past 11 years.
Day 6: Saturday, February 2
Our fifth fieldwork day. Our research sites were done but we still had some exploration to do. We headed to site 1 again—this time from shore, because finally the swells had settled down—and set out to look for bi-colored anthias, wire coral and garden eels. We enjoyed our exploration dive and noted that the deep parts of the reef looked to be in good shape while the shallower reef corals had a lot of algae covering them, and some looked dead. We’re very eager for our water quality analyses results, but all of them won’t be finished for another couple weeks.
After our great (and, for this trip, final) dive, we took our borrowed gear back to the dive shop and started to clean and break down our own dive gear.
Day 7: Sunday, February 3
This was the de-gas day, which meant we couldn’t dive because we had to fly the next day and needed to breathe away some of the excess nitrogen our bodies had stored after four consecutive days of diving. But we could still collect water quality samples, so we did one more microplastics sample at Puako and spent the rest of the day packing up and exploring.
We visited all the local beaches to see the waves and assess water access for future reference. We also visited historical sites such as the heiau, or temple, that Kamehameha built in Puako and south Kohala to honor the whale and shark gods.
The 11th year of our Hawaii reef surveys was a good one with surveys done and water samples taken at all sites.