PIFSC Scientists Mapping Benthic Habitat on Research Expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument

June 22, 2006
Bathymetric map of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Click on the image for higher resolution.
Bathymetric map of Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Click on the image for higher resolution.

The NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai has embarked on a 28-day voyage to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to create detailed maps of the seafloor, explore ancient shipwrecks, and develop interpretive materials for public science education. The area to be studied is part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument established on June 15 by President Bush.

On board is a multidisciplinary group of specialists in benthic habitat mapping, maritime archaeology, education and outreach activities. The Hi'ialakai will conduct research at Kure Atoll (the world's northernmost atoll) and Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. After leaving Monument waters, the NOAA ship will make a brief visit to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, before returning to her home port in Honolulu.

The research expedition is led by co-Chief Scientists John Rooney of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and Hans Van Tilburg of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program. Rooney also heads up the expedition's nine-person mapping team from PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division. At Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll, the mapping group will operate the Hi'ialakai's high-resolution multi-beam sonar systems around the clock to generate very accurate maps of the seafloor, providing detailed information on the ocean bottom's depth and composition. During daylight hours, the team will also operate the 25-ft survey vessel R/V AHI, launched from the Hi'ialakai, to extend the mapping into waters too shallow for the ship to operate in safely. At the end of the cruise, the AHI will also be deployed to conduct a 1-day mapping survey in Hanalei Bay.

The maps produced at Kure Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and Hanalei Bay will provide critical information to marine resource scientists and managers, helping them to better understand and delineate habitat suitable for corals, fish, endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and other marine life in the surveyed areas.

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A model of the USS Saginaw

Van Tilberg heads up the expedition's team of six maritime archaeologists from the NOAA Maritime Heritage Program. The team will conduct underwater archaeological surveys at several shipwreck sites at Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll using scuba and snorkeling gear. At Kure Atoll, the team will return to the wreckage of the USS Saginaw, initially discovered in 2003. The USS Saginaw was a sailing sloop with a steam-powered paddle wheel. She was launched in 1859 to conduct anti-piracy patrols in China. In 1870, on her final voyage, she ran aground and was destroyed at Kure. All people onboard reached safety at nearby Green Island. Five volunteers then managed to navigate a small boat on a hazardous month-long voyage back to the main Hawaiian Islands. Tragically, four of the volunteers died when landing the boat in rough surf on Kauai. The remaining castaways at remote Green Island were rescued after 67 days. At Kure Atoll, the team also hopes to further survey an unidentified 19th century whaling shipwreck thought to be the Parker. At Pearl and Hermes Atoll, the team will continue earlier surveys of shipwrecks discovered there in 2004. The wrecks are thought to be remains of the whaling ships Pearl and Hermes, for which these atolls were named.

The education and outreach team on board the Hi'ialakai will work with the scientists and crew on the NOAA ship to interpret their exciting and important research as it is being conducted and present it to a large and diverse audience. Additionally, they will assist the staff and Kure Atoll with invasive species eradication efforts and other tasks, and deploy an Autonomous Underwater Listening Station (AULS) at Pearl and Hermes Atoll for three days, to record the ambient noise field there.

The data collected on this expedition and other cruises to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by the NOAA ships Hi'ialakai and Oscar Elton Sette provide information essential to informed management decisions for the region by NOAA and partner agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and State of Hawaii.