Delving Deeper

Scientists get an unprecedented look at Hawaii's reefs.

Photos courtesy of Richard Pyle and Ken Longenecker

Scientists collect a large unidentified sea cucumber for closer inspection. Many of the species discovered during the expedition are poorly represented in natural history collections, and some even represent new species.

Like most folks, marine scientists love to get out of the office. What sets them apart, of course, is that they occasionally trade the monotony of fluorescent lighting and bad coffee for the cramped confines of a deep-sea submersible.

“Imagine a 7-foot plastic hamster ball and sticking three 200-pound guys into one of those along with all kinds of instrumentation,” laughs Bishop Museum fish ecologist Ken Longenecker. “We’re all very cozy.”

In December, Longenecker and nine other local scientists spent six days off the coast of Maui on the University of Hawaii’s research vessel, Kaimikai-o-Kanaloa, exploring an extraordinary expanse of coral reef at depths of 150 to 330 feet. Funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the expedition was the first of a three-year study designed to document these largely unexplored ecosystems. According to Bishop Museum ichthyologist Richard Pyle, one of the expedition’s chief scientists, these coral reefs have been overlooked in the past because they occur at depths beyond the range of standard scuba techniques. 

“In the last three to five years, coral experts started to say, ‘Hey, the coral reef doesn’t end just because we can’t dive any deeper,’” Pyle says. “And coral ecosystems at these depths are being recognized as being every bit as rich and dynamic and vital as the shallow reefs.”

Team members took part in five dives using the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory’s deep-sea submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V. Scientists often spent eight hours on their stomachs, peering through small portholes, scrutinizing the reefs and their inhabitants while collecting specimens and taking photos and video images. The research team hopes to answer questions about the connection between these ecosystems and shallower reefs while assessing a host of management concerns, including the impact of pollution.  

“If something happens that causes a reduction of water clarity, that could have a tremendous impact on how much light gets down to the bottom,”  Pyle says.  “So you could basically extinguish the sunlight that reaches these depths and wipe out entire ecosystems before you ever knew they existed.”

The Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory’s deep-sea submersibles allow scientists to collect specimens at previously unexplored depths.

Here’s a look at what they’ve found:

Crown-of-thorns star-fish, which researchers were surprised to see at these depths.

A new species of scorpionfish discovered last year.

A sample from a Black Coral tree.