Most people think of the “Hawaiian Islands” as a group of eight volcanic islands spanning approximately 400 miles from the “Big Island” of Hawai’i in the southeast, up to Ni’ihau in the northwest. However, these familiar inhabited islands only represent the youngest, southeastern most islands of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Less familiar are the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a group of tiny islands, atolls and reefs that stretch more than a thousand miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, starting with tiny Nihoa Island up through Kure Atoll. The most famous of these islands is Midway Atoll, which was the scene of a pivotal battle during World War II.

Map of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, showing the boundary for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Map of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, showing the boundary for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This remote and relatively pristine island chain, including its surrounding waters, was established as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006. At nearly 140,000 square miles, it is larger than all of the U.S. National Parks combined. It is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In 2010, the Monument was established by UNESCO as a Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site. Needless to say, it is a tremendous pleasure and honor to participate on a scientific cruise to this magnificent part of the world!

Members of the Science Team for this year's cruise assembled in the "Dry Lab" aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai for a pre-cruise briefing by Chief Scientist Dr. Randall Kosaki (dark T-shirt, left of center, facing camera). Photo by Robert K. Whitton.

Members of the Science Team for this year’s cruise assembled in the “Dry Lab” aboard the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai for a pre-cruise briefing by Chief Scientist Dr. Randall Kosaki (dark T-shirt, left of center, facing camera). Photo by Robert K. Whitton.

This is actually my eighth visit to these islands, and my fifth aboard the NOAA ship, Hi’ialakai. Each year, NOAA contracts Bishop Museum scientists to participate on various cruises to explore the natural and cultural resources of the islands, and monitor changes in the environment.  My role each year is to participate on an annual cruise focused on exploring and documenting Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems (MCEs) – also known as the coral-reef “Twilight Zone” – which is characterized by coral-reef habitat between depths of about 100 feet (30 meters) and 500 feet (150 meters).  This is the second year that NOAA has authorized the use of closed-circuit rebreathers for conducting this work (in previous years we had used open-circuit trimix gear), which means we’re able to go deeper, and get in more bottom time with less decompression than we’ve been able to do before.

A panorama shot of the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai at dock at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. Photo by Richard Pyle.

A panorama shot of the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai at dock at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor. Photo by Richard Pyle.

This year, after an initial “shake-down” dive at Lehua Rock (near the main Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau) tomorrow, we’ll be making stops at French Frigate Shoals, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Midway Atoll. Besides our work surveying deep coral reefs several other scientists are conducting research, including dropping baited video cameras to capture 3D images (stereo BRUVs), surveying for coral bleaching, specimen collections for population genetics analysis, and shark tagging and tracking. It definitely promises to be an exciting trip, and I’m anxious to get started!