The Seattle Aquarium has been conducting research in the waters off the Big Island of Hawaii every year since 2009—and this year’s trip was fortunately scheduled and completed before the COVID-19 crisis took hold in the U.S.

Follow along as Seattle Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Dr. Shawn Larson shares her travel journal (and incredible photos) from the experience!

January 13—travel day
Lab Specialist Amy Olsen, Assistant Dive Safety Officer/Curator of Fish & Invertebrates Joel Hollander, Senior Aquarist Kaela Wuesthoff and I are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii today—specifically the northwest, or Kona, side to conduct year 12 of the Seattle Aquarium’s annual Hawaii reef surveys.

Every January or February since 2009, the Aquarium has sent a team of four to five scientific divers and biologists to dive eight reef systems along the island’s northwest coast. The goals?

  • To document changes in fish diversity and abundance and coral over time and between sites;
  • To determine percent coral cover, species diversity and percent bleaching; and
  • To collect environmental data and track changes in water quality in the form of bacteria, nutrients and microplastics to determine if these effect changes in fish and corals.

We stay in Puako, a small community in the south Kohala district where we’ve established three of our research sites. Puako is the center of our research sites because it’s a protected fish replenishment area (FRA) and most types of fishing are banned. We arrived just in time to see the beautiful sunset.

Joel Hollander at sunset on Day 1.
Joel Hollander at sunset.

Day 1: January 14
Our first full day in Hawaii. The weather is great—slightly overcast, about 76° F and the waves aren’t bad, roughly one to two feet. We access most of our research sites from shore, not from boats, so we look for the calmest water to do our benthic, scuba-based surveys.

We get our gear ready and check out our sites in Puako (sites 1, 2 and 5) near where we’re staying—a lovely house donated for our use this week by friend and Puako homeowner Mike Budd. We’re seeking small waves and light winds so we can enter and exit the water easily with our gear, which includes full face masks so we can talk to each other and the camera—we’re taking video that we can use to count fish and corals after we’re back at the Aquarium, adding to our existing archive. Video allows us to slow down the tape or zoom in so we can count every possible reef resident. It also allows for repeated views of the reef at that time and for other scientists to use our videos to gather data for future projects.

Puako looks OK for diving, but there are some bigger wave sets rolling in. We decide to head up to Mahukona, about 30 miles to the north, to see if conditions there are better. Alas, they are worse, with winds up to 20—30 knots. So we head back to Puako and decide to dive at site 1, locally known as “the turtle cleaning station,” and it doesn’t disappoint: as soon as we descend, we see two turtles having their shells cleaned of algae by yellow and kole tangs!

The conditions are fine and we get all our transects done but it’s nearing 4pm, so we don’t have time for another dive today—the reef in our video becomes shadowed if we film before 10am or after 4pm. With that, we’re done for the day.

Site 1 at Puako, the turtle cleaning station
Site 1 at Puako, “the turtle cleaning station,” just before we start our transect (do you see the turtle in the background?).

Day 2: January 15
We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to finish all of our Puako sites today. We look at the surf conditions at both sites 2 and 5 and decide they both look dive-able from shore. We opt to start with site 5, located at the end of a road in Puako called Poniau, first. It’s one of our longest surface swims out to the reef and we eventually get there, breathing hard through our full-face-mask snorkels.

The water conditions are good, so we’re able to get both teams in the water and collect our four transects. Next, we tackle site 2, which is the trickiest shore entry because it’s off of lava. There are only a couple channels through the lava that are deep enough to enter and exit the water with scuba gear on. With the help of our shore support we get in easily and find the site quickly. This is one of our favorite sites just because it has the most diversity and density of fish in Puako. Our dives are spectacular and we consider ourselves lucky to see so many healthy reef fish.

We’re happy with the work we’ve been able to accomplish thus far—surveying three sites in two days. But our day isn’t done: we go back to the house and get cleaned up for our talk with members of the homeowners association at the old Puako church, built in the 1880s. We’ve shared our data with the community since 2014, and our talks are always well received with many good questions and insights into how the data may be used to conserve the very special reef in Puako.

Amy at site 8, ready to survey.
Shawn and Amy get an assist from Joel as they enter the water at site 5.

Day 3: January 16
Today we head down to Kailua Kona to dive off Mark Johnston’s boat, a Parker 25, to sites 3 and 4 (near the Old Kona Airport) and site 8 (just north of Captain Cook). The winds were a little high with some bigger swells moving through at Old Kona Airport, so we decide to make the 40-minute boat ride down to Captain Cook to dive site 8.

The conditions there look great with small waves and the water an azure blue. We send our first divers in and they find the site quickly. This is the only site with acropora coral, which looks like a vase and is common to the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Unfortunately, the coral bleached in 2015–2016 and hasn’t yet recovered, but there are plenty of fish and we have a great dive. Afterward, we head back to Old Kona and each dive team does three transects at both sites 3 and 4. It’s such a luxury to dive off the boat and now we have six of our eight sites done after day 3!

After our dives we meet with our partners at the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), Dr. Bill Walsh and associates, who have been working with us since we started in 2009. Our ultimate goal is to have DAR use our data to help make management decisions to better conserve the coral reefs and fish assemblages.

Amy at site 8, ready to survey.
Amy at site 8, ready to survey.

Day 4: January 17
Just one dive for the team today. The conditions are perfect and we decide to go back to site 5 in Puako to redo a survey, since we had our center spot slightly off (by about 5 meters) the first time. The water is so calm that one dive team is able to easily get out and pick up two more surveys with no issues. The water has been kind to us this week!

After our successful dive we leave for the other side of the Island, Hilo. We have a lecture scheduled at the University of Hawaii Hilo organized by our partner Dr. Tracy Wiegner, who we work with to conduct the water quality portion of our project (primarily nutrient levels that are indicative of pollution from fertilizers and septic systems). We’re speaking in a graduate student seminar and have a full house. The students are very interested in our project and we receive lots of offers to help with our project. We also drop off water samples that we collected at our sites for Dr. Wiegner and her students to analyze for dozens of nutrients that tell us how healthy the water is for the fish and corals. That, along with the bacterial and microplastics testing that we’re doing, should give us a good indication of the environmental health of the reef.

Shawn giving a talk about Seattle Aquarium research to University of Hawaii Hilo graduate students
Shawn giving a talk about Seattle Aquarium research to University of Hawaii Hilo graduate students.

Day 5: January 18
Our last dive day and we still have two sites to survey, 6 and 7 in Mahukona, our most northerly. It’s Saturday and the access to the dive sites is in a park so it’s busy even at 9 am. People are already set up for a day in the sun, watching the humpback whales breach, swimming with the fish, picnicking…it’s a great way to spend a day off. But not us, we’re working!

One team heads for site 6 and the other heads for site 7. Both dive teams dive at the same time and when we’re done, we head to shore to swap out tanks and switch sites. That way we get a full four transects per site. Except for the crowds on shore, the conditions are almost perfect and our work is completed with no issues.

Fish at Mahukona State Park.
Fish at Mahukona State Park.

Now we’re done! We’ve completed all eight sites; collected water for nutrient, bacteria and microplastics analysis; and given two talks about our research. Now we can do a “deep dive” into site 1, past our research site, to see how the reef looks beyond the area where we do our work. We save this dive for the last and only conduct it if our core sites have been surveyed. It’s a beautiful dive and we document healthy wire corals (those that don’t photosynthesize for additional food like the shallower corals), garden eels in the deeper sand beds, and an eagle ray in the shallows next to our site.

An eagle ray at our last dive, near site 1 in Puako.
An eagle ray at our last dive, near site 1 in Puako.

Day 6: January 19
It’s our de-gas day, a day that we can’t dive so we can give our bodies time to breathe off any excess nitrogen in our systems accumulated from a week of breathing compressed air at depth while scuba diving. This is essential if we are to safely fly home tomorrow. It’s also a day to organize all our digital research files, dry and put away our research gear, finalize the last of the water quality analyses, and clean up from spending a week diving and living in our beautiful donated house, or hale in Hawai'ian, by friend and supporter Mike Budd.

Tomorrow we fly back to Seattle. Hawaii was good to us this year—the water was calm and, even though the underwater visibility wasn’t great, we saw more fish this year than we have before (at least it seemed like it! We still have to count them all using our video once we’re back in Seattle). It’s been a good trip.

Amy conducting water quality analyses at Mike Budd's house in Puako.
Amy conducting water quality analyses at Mike Budd's house in Puako.

Want to see the team in action, doing a transect below the surface? Check out this video from a previous year:





Please consider a gift that will help us continue providing the best care for all our animals,
support our staff, advance science-based policies to protect marine wildlife, and expand our
at-home engagement and learning opportunities during our temporary closure.

A gift of any size makes a difference.

Support the Seattle Aquarium

Your gift will support the Seattle Aquarium’s Resilience Fund. Our programming continues with your help.