Category Archives: Science

Marine Protected Areas

MiloliiI see in the latest Hana Hou, Michael Shapiro took the left turn off Mamalahoa Highway on the Big Island, and “went down Milolii”. This hard scrabble community, which many bill as “the last traditional fishing village in Hawaii,” really is a piece of the past. For example, there’s no electricity. That, as Shapiro notes, is largely by choice–the village elders trying vainly to hold onto their heritage. But, once you make the trek down Milolii Road to the seaside, it’s pretty clear you’re far away from anywhere else. 220 volts wouldn’t change that.

Shapiro made the trip, it seems, to check out the Milolii Lawaia Ohana Camp, a sort of summer camp intended to help sustain traditional fishing practices. This year, more than fifty kids and their families attended. It’s a big celebration for a community that practically exists because of traditional fishing.

Missing from Shapiro’s piece is a detail that makes remote Milolii part of a vast and growing world community. In 2006, the Hawaii State Legislature approved a bill that made the waters off this scruffy fishing village one of the first Marine Managed Areas in the state. Since then, the community has been working with nonprofit groups, like the Community Conservation Network (now, the Hawaii Community Stewardship Network) and the community’s own Paa Pono Milolii, to draft the rules and principles for a community managed marine area–one in which near shore marine resources are protected through traditional management techniques.

Milolii is just one of nearly two dozen Hawaii communities, on all the major islands, that are trying to bring marine conservation to a local level. For mostly Native Hawaiian communities, like Milolii, fishing and access to fish is a key part of sustaining traditional culture. But this isn’t just a local issue. Community-base marine protected areas are now scattered across the Pacific. This controversial model of conservation is intended to revive and sustain reef fisheries by establishing no-take zones where fish populations can recover from the pressure of over-fishing. They take many forms. One vision of the Milolii community managed marine area would require all fishermen within its bounds to use traditional fishing techniques. That would mean fishing for opelu, the main fishery for the village, from wooden outrigger canoes, which would essentially mean only locals could fish there–sport fishermen in their big fiberglass boats with powerful outboards would be banned. Other communities use different strategies: complete take-free zones, seasonal fishing restrictions, community member fishing only etc.

As remote coastal communities in the Pacific compete for fewer and fewer fish, these types of arrangements will likely become even more common. Just along the Kona Coast of the Big Island, Milolii, Honokaa and Honaunau all are seeking some kind of community control of their near shore marine resources. And if traditional fishermen in other communities want have a nearshore fishery in the future, they’ll be trying to do the same thing soon.

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Smithsonian’s Pacific Origins

SmithsonianI’ve always been a binge reader. Sometimes people mistake that for erudition, but if you pay close attention to my ranting, you’ll notice I repeat myself a lot. Not that I say the same things over and over (although my wife may disagree), but I definitely quote the same people with distressing frequency. That’s because, when I decide I like a particular writer, I read everything that writer ever wrote.

By the time I was 10 years old, I had read all the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and committed to memory every insipid line of his poetry. By 12, I read all the short fiction of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. By 14, all the lyrical nonsense of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. The usual bibliography of a young boy, in other words. As an adult, my tastes have been maybe a little more eclectic, but no less monomaniacal. In school, I underwent sequential obsessions with Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, Peter Mattheissen, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roddy Doyle.

But my biggest obsessions have always been nonfiction. While in school, I discovered essayists like Steven Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, and Loren Eisley. I gorged myself on the grandees of the New Yorker, E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee. And it’s not just individual authors that pinion me; my bookshelves are knotted with clusters of books on surprisingly few, if diverse, themes. There are dozens of books on sailing and the maritime arts. I have a library of dictionaries and grammars in foreign languages I barely speak. I seem drawn to revisionist histories of single subjects: cod, coffee, poison, lobsters etc. And every trip I’ve ever taken has apparently encumbered me with a new manual of birds or flowers or insects. In short, the obsessions of my old age are no less limited than those of my youth.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that, after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, I immediately went out and got “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”, his epic description of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a four-year odyssey involving six ships, hundreds of sailors, and a squadron of botanists, geologists, linguists and cartographers. The Ex Ex, as it came to be called, also turned out to be the last voyage of discovery completed entirely under sail.

The goals of the Ex Ex were ambitious ones. They were to confirm the existence of the continent of Antarctica, which neither Cook nor Tasman ever got close enough to see, due to the threat of sea ice and bad weather. They were to chart and explore the great Northwest coast of North American, the Columbia River basin, and the islands of Fiji, all crucial to the continued commercial success of the country’s far-flung whaling and sealing fleets. Most importantly, the Ex Ex was to serve as symbol of America’s growing power as an industrial and scientific nation.

But this 19th Century voyage of discovery was in many ways benighted. The leader of the expedition, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who in many ways seemed like the ideal captain for such an enterprise–a meticulous and inventive cartographer and apparently a beloved mentor to his young crew–turned out to be an insecure and paranoid martinet. The Ex Ex had barely left the country before the sailors and scientists began to lament his leadership. As was the custom for these kinds of voyages, most of the crew kept official journals, which they had to surrender at the end of the expedition. These diaries are catalogs of hate for the young Lt. Wilkes, and an obsessive tabulation of his perceived (and all too real) sins. This virulent loathing would later play a large part in obscuring the success of the expedition.

And yet, the Ex Ex was an astonishingly successful expedition. In addition to discovering Antarctica, the Ex Ex mapped hundreds of miles of coastline and charted the shipwreck-strewn islands of Fiji. Many of the maps created by Wilkes and his crew were still in use at the outbreak of World War II. Maybe most important, the scientists of the Ex Ex collected hundreds of barrels of cultural artifacts, biological specimens, and scientific observations. They conducted some of the earliest ethnological studies of the peoples of the Pacific, and visited and charted dozens of previously unknown islands. The Ex Ex put an American stamp on the largest ocean on the planet, setting the stage for the country’s quiet colonization of the Pacific Basin.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the story happened after their return. Wilkes and his crew became embroiled in a string of lawsuits and courts martial that threatened to overshadow the discoveries of the expedition. Indeed, who among us have ever heard of Charles Wilkes. And yet, the accomplishments of the Ex Ex were, in many ways, more substantial than those of the earlier Lewis and Clark Expedition.

But Wilkes, for all his flaws as a captain and a leader, proved a much better self-promoter and a politician. In the years following the return of the Ex Ex, he jealously guarded the collections of the expedition, even to the point of perjuring himself in court to maintain control. And here’s the kicker: In 1843, five years after the Ex Ex set sail from Norfolk, custody for the collections of the expedition was awarded to the new National Institution for the Promotion of Science, with Wilkes at the helm. The National Institution was a kind of political end-around the ongoing arguments about what the country should do with a half-million dollar (about $11 million in today’s dollars) bequest to the nation from a wealthy Englishman named James Smithson. Ultimately, the National Institution and the thousands of artifacts, biological collections, and ethnographic materials from the Ex Ex would become the Smithsonian Institution.

So it’s not too far-fetched to say that the seeds for the greatest museum complex in the world weren’t planted in the country’s dismal capital, but in the wide expanse of the Pacific.

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C-MORE Images

Radiolarians and foraminifera. Taken by Angel White, OSU

Radiolarians and foraminifera.
Taken by Angel White, OSU

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microscopy, famously discovered that even clean, fresh water teemed with what he called animicules. “Some of these,” he wrote, “are so exceedingly small that millions of millions might be contained in a single drop of water.”

It was a revelation that astonished and delighted van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th Century, and it’s no less delightful and astonishing today.

This evening, I was browsing through the image library at C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography, Research and Education, and came upon a marvelous collection of microscopy images that gives a hint to the remarkable diversity of the microscopic “animicules” that populate the ocean. They range from phytoplankton, like diatoms, coccolithophores and cyanobacteria, to more complex organisms, like radiolarians, foraminifera and copepods. And in their miniscule diversity, they almost defy belief. Some, like the radiolarians and foraminifera, seem like star bursts in an exploding universe. Others, like the coccolithophores, resemble strange, Rube Goldberg machines. geary

Such a scrapbook of images goes a long way toward justifying the work at C-MORE, a consortium of research institutions that are trying to survey the biodiversity of the oceans and understand what the diversity means for the rest of the world. I spoke with the founder and director, David Karl, for a Hawaii Business story about research programs at the University of Hawaii. Like van Leeuwenhoek, he marveled at the diversity of microscopic life. “In any drop of sea water, there’s a million microbes,” he said. “Micro-organisms dominate this planet.”

Glancing through these images, it’s clear that it will take generations to understand that domination.

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Google Does Papahanaumokuakea

monksealThe Northwest Hawaiian Islands, better known now as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, are famously the most remote motes of land in the most remote archipelago on Earth. Almost by definition, that makes them fabulously inaccessible. Native Hawaiian sailing canoes evidently visited the islands, and Nihoa and Mokumanamana were apparently inhabited at least part of the year. Of the low islands and atolls, though, only Midway has been encumbered by anything like “permanent” habitation, first as a failed coaling station for steam ships, then as a residence for employees of a company laying the trans-Pacific cable, and finally as a key naval air station during WWII, the site of one of history’s major air/sea battles. Even so, the human habitation on Midway has always been a tenuous affair, requiring almost every scrap of food and supplies to be shipped in.

The other islands of Papahanaumokuakea have had even less of a human presence. In the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawaii granted a patent to a pair of American prospectors to mine guano on Laysan, a hapless industrial process that began the island’s grievous ecological decline, a decline accelerated toward the end of the century when the German immigrant Max Schlemmer introduced guinea pigs and rabbits to the island, hoping to create a meat canning business. The guinea pigs and rabbits quickly devoured the native plants. After the guano gave out, there were never more than a handful of residents on Laysan. In the 1920s, a few pearl divers lived at Pearl and Hermes, but in a couple years, the pearls, too, were depleted.

Nowadays, except for a small, intermittent population of researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and a few other scientific organizations, Papahanaumokuakea is basically uninhabited. Even Midway, which once served as a kind of hub in the pro-Age of Aviation, now only entertains a handful of visitors a year.

And yet, the monument is one of the jewels of the National Park Service. The waters team with big fish, serving as one of the world’s best examples of a healthy, predator dominated reef. It’s the main habitat for dozens of endangered species, including the Laysan albatross, Laysan finch, Hawaiian monk seal and innumerable fishes and corals. And here’s the kicker: No one can visit the monument.

At least until recently. Now, though, anyone with a computer can take visit the desolate and alien world of Papahanaumokuakea. Through a partnership between Google, NOAA and FWS, Google Street Views now allows you to stroll the beaches of Midway, Tern Island, Lisianski and Pearl and Hermes. You can pause to gaze at the flocks of albatross or to get a better look at the turtles sunning themselves at the water’s edge. Click the little navigational arrows, and you can spin around in place and get a sense of what it meant to shipwrecked whalers, who sometimes spent months on these low islands, living on seals and bird eggs while they awaited rescue. Gape for a moment at the recently landed FWS researchers and the paltry allotment of blue jerrycans of water that they’ll have to live off of until the next supply boat arrives. All as easy finding where that movie you wanted to watch is playing.

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Urchins Rule

UrchinMankind—both the builder and the destroyer—has left his mark on the world. But it’s also true that the world is shaped by the minute operations of seemingly insignificant organisms. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sea and along its margins. At research centers like C-MORE, scientists study how microscopic organisms regulate the chemistry of the sea, and in their dead trillions constitute the thick muck of the ocean floor. I’ve written elsewhere about how the sand on coral islands is composed of the detritus of coralline algae and tiny coral fragments gnawed off the reef by the obdurate beaks of parrotfish. And, in one of my favorite examples of small animals changing the landscape, we know that much of the rocky coastline of tropical, basaltic islands like Oahu is shaped by the incessant scraping spines of sea urchins.

Urchins also turn out to be major players in the shaping of ecosystems.

For the last three years, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources, has been trying to control the spread of Kappaphycus, an invasive algae that’s been slowly smothering the coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay. Any paddler or snorkeler or boater can attest to the changes in the reefs over the last decade, as the structural habitats provided by rice coral, cauliflower coral, and coralline algae have increasingly given way to a shaggy coat of seaweed that blocks out the sunlight and impedes the growth of the coral.

Eight years ago, the state and its nonprofit partner The Nature Conservancy began by duplicating a program TNC had already successfully implemented on Moanalua Bay, using a so-called Super Sucker—essentially, a barge with a giant vacuum attached—to suck enormous quantities of Kappaphycus off the reef. Amazingly, it works. The Super Sucker on Kaneohe Bay can extract over 1,000 pounds of seaweed an hour (much of which is used by farmers to supplement their soil.) The problem, though, is that the treatment doesn’t last. Even after nearly clearing the reef of the invasive algae, the lush growth returns to pre-treatment levels within a matter of months. Recently, TNC added a second barge to the Kaneohe Bay program, but even if the two barges work full time, they can’t keep up with the prolific growth of Kappaphycus.

Enter the urchin. In 2010, DLNR began raising collector urchins at its Anuenue Fisheries Research Center on Sand Island. The idea is to use these natural grazers to hold down the growth of seaweed in areas of Kaneohe Bay already treated by the Super Sucker. (The collector urchin is a native species to Hawaii waters, though not often found in the Bay.) In a demonstration project, TNC cleared a 3,000 square-foot section of patch reef in the middle of the Bay, then distributed collector urchins over half the reef, leaving the other half without urchins. On the side with urchins, the Kappaphycus growth was kept to a minimum; the urchin-free side quickly reverted to a seaweed jungle. That’s the power of small animals to shape the world.

And, at least in this one instance, people noticed. Since 2011, the state has distributed more than 100,000 collector urchins onto the reefs of Kaneohe Bay.

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Making Waves

Up Tantalus Drive


Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Charles E. Freeman

High up Tantalus Drive, on a ridge overlooking the Honolulu skyline, Don Mussell practices the occult art of radio. As the broadcast engineer for Hawai‘i Public Radio, Mussell installs and maintains all its equipment. Today he’s come up the mountain to check on HPR’s new powerhouse: the KIPO FM 89.3 translator. This station—a radio tower bristling with antennas and a small cinderblock building to house the electronics that go with them—is essentially a powerful booster capturing the KIPO signal from HPR’s Honolulu studio and relaying that signal throughout O‘ahu and far out over the Pacific to translators on Maui and the Big Island.

Hawai‘i, with its mountain ranges and its vast distances between islands, is an inhospitable place for radio. The Tantalus translator, designed and built by Mussell, is the linchpin in HPR’s ambitious scheme to extend its two broadcast streams—KHPR for classical music and KIPO for jazz and public affairs—to every part of the state. In almost every other market of similar size, public radio has forsaken one of these streams; HPR clings to both religiously. And if this is its creed, Don Mussell is its high priest.

Radio, Mussell says, is mysterious. From his point of view, the atmosphere is a pulsing matrix of radio waves both invisible and substantial, vibrating at various frequencies and wavelengths. “Microwaves are about this long,” Mussell says, holding his hands a few inches apart, “but FM is about ten feet, TV is about forty-five feet and AM can be miles long.” He pauses for a moment while I envision all these radio signals vibrating over the ridges and valleys of the Ko‘olau. This tissue of energy is no abstraction for Mussell, and understanding its ebb and flow is the key to figuring out how and where to build facilities like the Tantalus translator.

“That’s the way this magical stuff works,” Mussell says. “The layers of complexity are pretty astounding.”

But if the physics of radio is arcane, its bureaucracy is even more inscrutable. Here, too, HRP depends on Mussell. General manager Michael Titterton explains that for many years the FCC imposed a freeze on new public radio licenses. About six years ago this became a serious, potentially insurmountable impediment to HPR’s ambition to bring public radio to the entire state. “Then, just at the right moment, Don Mussell showed up,” Titterton says. Besides being a technical wiz, Mussell, as it turns out, is also a master navigator of the Byzantine world of FCC regulation. “Don has almost a Renaissance approach to radio,” Titterton says, “in part because he’s good engineer, in part because he’s a good strategist and in part because he has the patience to go through all the FCC hoops.”

At first glance the taciturn Mussell doesn’t seem like a “get it done” kind of guy, let alone the type you’d find shinnying up radio towers in a stiff breeze in the dead of night. He’s a slight man with a delicate build and wry, twinkly eyes. At the station he shuffles around in old, worn slippers, khakis rolled up to his ankles and a faded flannel shirt. He’s contemplative, and like most engineers, his conversation is laconic and laced with jargon. When he speaks he has an ironic, vaguely elfin expression and the kind of composure that makes him seem more like a college professor than a man of action. Even so, if you’re one of HPR’s many devoted fans, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mussell. If you’ve ever tuned in for Morning Edition on your commute from Hale‘iwa, listened to All Things Considered over lunch in Lahaina or sipped a beer in Kealakekua to the syncopated rhythms of Jazz with Don Gordon, it’s largely because of Mussell’s technical skills.

Mussell came to Hawai‘i in 1997 after nearly thirty years as a broadcast engineer on the Mainland to build KKCR, Kaua‘i’s public access station. While he was working on KKCR, he took other assignments on the Mainland. “I was going back and forth, back and forth,” Mussell says. “Then, one day I was sitting there in the KKCR station when Michael Titterton came in. ‘Who are you?’ he said. And I said, ‘I guess I’m the engineer.’ Well, there’s a real shortage of engineers here, so he said, ‘Do you have a card?’” It wasn’t long afterward that Mussell found himself in the vanguard of HPR’s expansion.

That expansion, of course, has depended on the contributions of a lot of people—not least on the vision and commitment of executives like Titterton. But at heart the changes have been technological. As an engineer, Mussell is a jack-of-all-trades. “I think I’ve built about forty radio stations,” he says. “So I do everything.” A quick tour of the studio gives a sense of his eclecticism. The equipment racks, for example, are crammed with gear. Electronic monitors track the power output, the signal and even the temperature of the mountaintop translators. Tuners receive feeds from National Public Radio, untold hours of Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. Other devices allow HPR to stream content on the web and monitor how many people are listening. Still another machine allows HPR to talk to other stations around the world. Mussell is responsible for all this equipment. “I selected and installed the wire, I punched it all up, I installed the electronics, made all the connections,” he says. “I even picked the furniture.”

Still, most of Mussell’s work is in the field. FM radio is line-of-sight; mountains and the curvature of the Earth can block its signal. Consequently, HPR relies upon a network of translator stations—boosters, essentially—to ferry its signals around the state. “There are seven in all,” Mussell says. “Three on O‘ahu; on Maui we have one; and on the Big Island we have three.” Much of Mussell’s time is spent visiting and servicing these translators. One of his most important achievements has been the construction of the new KIPO translator up on Tantalus. This location, peeking over the substantial barricades of the Ko‘olau range, gives HPR direct coverage of most of O‘ahu and offers line-of-sight access to the translator on Maui. “On a clear day,” Mussell says, “you can actually see the top of Haleakala.”

This is part of what makes the Tantalus translator the future of HPR. The translator, completed in 2008, seems like a modest structure: a standard tall radio tower for the antenna and a small, windowless building perched on a tiny ridge-top plot of land carved from a bamboo jungle. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. “This tower is designed to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds,” Mussell points out. “The foundation goes down thirty feet.” And the electronics inside are no less astonishing: The coaxial cable that connects the actual transmitter to the antenna is made of one-inch copper pipe threaded through four-inch copper pipe, a stout configuration that can handle about sixty kilowatts—enough juice to power a whole neighborhood.

Such power, Mussell says, is another part of the mystery of radio. The Tantalus translator operates at twenty-nine kilowatts. But by using the right antenna, Mussell can focus that power to over four hundred kilowatts—or higher. “We could boost that to a thousand kilowatts if we wanted.” Of course, that much energy might raise public concerns about the health effects of high-power electromagnetic fields. The Pu‘u ‘Öhi‘a Trail, a spur trail of the popular Makiki trail system, passes close by the Tantalus translator. “We have to minimize the energy on the ground for hikers,” he says. “Down on the ground, it’s just a small percentage of the federal limit on public exposure.” Up on the tower, though, it’s more intense—up to 340 percent.

All this makes the Tantalus translator HPR’s most sophisticated facility, and it’s the reason even residents of distant Hilo can now tune in to KIPO after suffering decades of public radio silence. While Mussell’s pleased to play a critical if behind-the-scenes role in the thriving world of Hawai‘i community radio, it’s really the magic that’s kept him interested. He’s fond of paraphrasing Einstein: “Wire telegraphy is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York, and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio operates exactly the same way: You send the signals here, they receive them there. The only difference,” Mussell says, “is that there is no cat.”

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Hybrid Beauty

An anthurium called "Moana Loa"

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Linda Ching

“Nasty plant.”

That’s what my mother used to call the anthurium. With its long, jutting spadix, the nickname is probably inevitable. And it’s likely that this jaunty, priapic charm — along with brilliant colors, gorgeous, heart-shaped leaves and exceptional vase life — makes the anthurium the king of Hawai‘i’s cut-flower trade, bringing $5 million to 6 million into the state annually. With that much money at stake, there’s incentive to develop new varieties.

This year, for example, a Hawai‘i anthurium called Mauna Loa earned a red ribbon from the Society of American Florists. An obake—a variety of anthurium with white, green-edged spathes — Mauna Loa is one of several award-winning flowers submitted by Green Point Nurseries, a prominent Big Island grower.

Although most of Hawai‘i’s commercial growers, like Green Point, are on the Big Island, the center of the anthurium world is on O‘ahu, at the Magoon Greenhouse complex of UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture. Teresita Amore (could an anthurium grower have a better last name?) manages the anthurium program. Strolling through the rows of flowers, she pauses at a table of striking plants—promising crosses between various different anthuriums. “These are potential new varieties,” she says. They’ve been selected for qualities like color, size, yield and vase life. The Mauna Loa turns out to be exceptional in this respect, looking fresh as the day it was cut for forty to sixty days. It’ll also yield six flowers a year—high for an obake—and it’s disease resistant. “We also look at general aesthetics,” Amore says. After all, an award-winning flower should be, above anything else, beautiful.

The work of creating a new flower doesn’t end here. Promising new varieties are cloned and shipped to growers on the Big Island for testing. Growers play a critical role in the process. They and their customers ultimately decide whether a new variety is a winner. That takes a long time—sometimes more than ten years, Amore says.

But it’s time well spent. Since 2004, six UH-created anthurium varieties have earned ribbons. The university has even patented a couple of varieties, including the popular scarlet beauty, Tropic Fire. All this has made Hawai‘i an important player in the anthurium world, challenging the traditional hot spots, Holland and Mauritius. Indeed, the sassy plants born in the Magoon greenhouse are now found in flower arrangements across North America and Japan.

Maybe they’re not so nasty after all.

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Raising the Reef

story by Dennis Hollier

The Waikiki Aquarium might seem modest compared with some of the super-aquariums that have sprouted around the country. It doesn’t offer the drama of great white sharks, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, or of whale sharks, like the Georgia Aquarium. But it does offer exhibits of astonishing beauty and naturalism. In one room, swarms of ghostly jellyfish pulse slowly through a spectral realm that recalls the mysterious lakes of Palau. The two giant clams hulking in the heave and surge of the Barrier Reef exhibit are the largest and oldest in captivity—gorgeous, 200-pound, purple-fleshed animals billowing out of boulder-size shells.

Yet these enormous bivalves are overshadowed, even in their own tank, by something even more remarkable: the massive purple, gold and sanguine colonies of live coral, which make the scene so realistic you almost want to snap on your snorkel. What really sets all the aquarium’s exhibits apart is the diversity and abundance of live coral, more than 100 species in all. This dazzling display of bright colors and fanciful shapes is unmatched in any aquarium in the world.

The full story of the aquarium’s coral collection isn’t apparent from the virtuoso displays out front. It’s to be found in the warren of labs and offices behind the tanks and especially in the sheds and holding tanks lining the narrow access road beside the aquarium. Here, in this ramshackle setting, is the world’s most successful coral farm.

The man behind the coral is Charles Delbeek, an aquarium specialist and former hobbyist who’s been raising coral for nearly twenty years. Delbeek is quick to point out that the aquarium’s coral program began long before he got there. “The previous director, Dr. Bruce Carlson, started bringing back corals from his travels in the 1970s,” he says. At that time, the display of live corals was largely the province of hobbyists rather than professional aquarists, especially in Europe. The big public aquariums relied upon rocks, dead coral or man-made substrates for their displays. “Back then,” Delbeek says, “marine scientists would have told you that you couldn’t keep corals alive. Meanwhile, people in Germany were keeping them alive in their living rooms.” Carlson met Delbeek at a conference where Delbeek was giving a talk on raising coral. Some years later, the aquarium offered Delbeek a job presiding over its growing collection. The Waikiki Aquarium became the first public aquarium in North America to display live South Pacific corals, and it still has the largest, most diverse exhibition of live corals in the world. One of its founding colonies, a bristling head of Acropora bruggemanii, is probably the oldest live coral in captivity.

More than two decades ago, the Waikiki Aquarium began systematically raising coral for use in its exhibits. In the early 1990s there was a growing concern about the sources of the coral displayed in public aquariums, which rely upon suppliers in places like Fiji, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. Although there’s now a trend toward culturing corals and other organisms for the aquarium trade, back then much of the live coral was collected right off the reef. Aquariums had little idea where their coral came from or whether harvesting them harmed the reefs. “We’re probably unique,” Delbeek says, “in that we can say exactly which reefs all our corals come from in the wild. We even have the GPS coordinates for some of the species in our collection.”

Visitors to the aquarium can get a sense of how coral farming works in a special exhibit near the Hawaiian monk seals. Despite the prior reservations of marine biologists, who felt corals were too fickle and sensitive to raise in captivity, coral husbandry turns out to be fairly straightforward.

What we perceive as a single mass of coral is actually a colony of thousands or millions of individual organisms called polyps. In the hard or stony corals, these polyps remove calcium from sea water and secrete the skeleton most of us know as coral. Soft corals don’t grow this hard skeletal structure; instead, their polyp colonies coat rocks or dead coral stone and can resemble a mass of anemones. For both kinds of coral, one form of reproduction is asexual, the simple multiplication of polyps in the colony; thus all you need is one finger-size fragment—a “frag” in the trade—and you can grow a new colony, a genetic clone of the original.

The tanks of the aquarium’s coral farm are fabulously congested with colonies of both stony and soft corals. They grow surprisingly fast. Stony corals can grow as much as 8 inches a year. The impressive samples of purple-tipped staghorn coral that overshadow the giant clams in the Barrier Reef exhibit began as basketball-size chunks only a little more than two years ago. Now they’re shading out other corals, and Delbeek is considering replacing them with smaller pieces. Soft corals are even more prolific. “They grow like weeds,” Delbeek says.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It turns out that there are a lot of things to know about growing coral. Lighting, for example, is critical. The Waikiki Aquarium is unusual because its tropical location means that natural light can be used for many of the exhibits. The climate is also a factor. “We can easily do exhibits outside,” Delbeek says. “Other aquariums really can’t. We can just dig a hole in the ground, where other facilities would have to spend millions.”

Delbeek also stresses the importance that water chemistry—calcium levels, alkalinity and pH—has on the health of coral. Part of the aquarium’s unusual success in growing coral might have to do with its extraordinary water, which comes from a saltwater well deep underground. After percolating through 80 feet of calciferous rock, the chemistry of the water is different from normal sea water. Then it’s vigorously aerated to remove excess carbon dioxide. The result is a perfectly clear fluid that one researcher calls “miracle water.” Its superior quality is so sought after that one of the benefits of membership at the Waikiki Aquarium is the privilege of bringing its water home for your private aquarium.

While most public aquariums now have a live coral exhibit, at the Waikiki Aquarium almost every display contains live coral. Except for a small amount of seed stock—frags carefully collected from around the tropical Pacific—all the coral on display at the aquarium was raised on the premises. But one of the principal functions of the aquarium’s coral husbandry program is to supply live coral to other institutions. “I’ve been here since 1995,” Delbeek says. “During that time, we’ve sent out more than 6,000 frags to other aquariums. There’s probably not one aquarium in America that we haven’t sent coral to.” Kathryn Harper, the aquarium’s director of community outreach, highlights the scale of the operation: “We could do this full time if we wanted—there’s enough demand.” The aquarium, which is owned by the University of Hawai‘i, cooperates closely with scientific institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology. “Right now we’re working with scientists who need samples of genetically identical Hawaiian coral,” says Delbeek. “We also sent about 600 Acropora frags to an environmental consulting company doing research on the effects of crude oil on coral.” Concerns about human effects on coral reefs, like the ship grounding that wiped out nearly 20 acres of reef in ‘Ewa, lend impetus to the coral research at the aquarium.

“Now we’re working with rare Hawaiian corals,” says Delbeek. “That’s the direction we want to move in.” Among the more fascinating corals in his care is a small collection of deep-sea corals recently collected in the ‘Au‘au Channel off Maui. “These are Leptoseris,” Delbeek points out. “They were collected at more than 100 meters—the world’s deepest-occurring photosynthetic coral.” The aquarium is trying to grow this species out so that scientists will have enough material for their research. Another Hawai‘i species in the collection is Montipora dilitata. “This coral is believed to be only found in Kane‘ohe Bay,” Delbeek says. “It’s currently classified as a species of concern by NOAA, but it may soon be listed as endangered.”

Perhaps the greatest threat facing the world’s corals is the worldwide epidemic of coral bleaching thought to be associated with global warming. When exposed for an extended period to higher than normal temperatures, many corals will expel their zooxanthellae—the symbiotic algae that live within the polyps, produce their food and give them their color.

“Hawai‘i’s far enough north that we haven’t really been affected by frequent coral bleaching events yet,” says Delbeek. But eventually, Hawai‘i’s reefs will also face this threat. Hawai‘i’s corals are already under stress from pollution, human damage and invasive algae that choke out the sunlight. Part of the aquarium’s interest in expanding the coral farming project is to be able to restock wild populations of Hawaiian corals after a die-off. The aquarium has more than 100 species of stony coral alone, including several Hawaiian species. Although the current state of the world’s coral reefs is alarming, Delbeek says there’s still some room for optimism. “If the conditions are good, the coral comes back,” he says. “Last October, I was diving in the Solomon Islands and saw a section of reef that just ten years ago was all dead. Now it’s completely covered with living coral.”

That resilience is crucial to the aquarium’s vision to become a kind of seed bank. And maybe one day, in addition to supplying coral to the public aquariums of the world, the pullulating colonies of coral in this improbable farm will help save the fragile reefs of Hawai‘i.

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Mapping the Void

Tracing the arc of the sea turtle.

story by Dennis Hollier
photos, courtesy Shawn K. K. Murakawa
NOAA Fisheries

Far out in the North Pacific, a loggerhead turtle paddles lazily with the current, glutting itself on jellyfish and pelagic snails. The water is tinged green with the plankton and other nutrients that are the basis of life in the ocean. A vast, warm-water eddy concentrates all this bounty into a narrow band along its edge. Eddies like this one are common in this part of the Pacific. Sometimes reaching 200 miles across, they spin like tumbleweeds off the great Kuroshio Current, which passes just to the north. This loggerhead has patiently foraged the edges of this eddy for several months. Four, five, six times, it has spiraled around the broad perimeter, just as loggerheads probably have for millions of years. It has the same sad eyes as all those that came before; the same tufts of red algae grow on its carapace; the same species of pelagic crabs hitchhike in the leathery creases around its tail. But there is one small difference between this turtle and its ancestors: a small, white ARGOS satellite transponder fixed to its shell.

Fifteen hundred miles away, in the Manoa office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the signal from that transponder pings Jeffrey Polovina’s computer. Polovina, an ocea-nographer and Director of the Ecosystems and Oceanography division of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, has been following Turtle 124 for almost three years. Two or three times a day, the loggerhead’s position is updated on the computer, revealing a breathtaking migration that has crisscrossed 12,000 miles of the Pacific. Together with turtle experts like NOAA’s George Balazs, Polovina has been charting the movement of more than 200 Pacific turtles this way. Some were hatched in a Japanese aquarium and released with satellite tags. Others were by-catch on commercial fishing boats, and NOAA fishery observers aboard the vessels tagged and released them. Using this data, researchers are finally shedding some light on the mysterious and complicated journey of the loggerhead.

Polovina has the dignified, gray-haired eminence and measured cadences of a scientist, but his bright eyes and elfin features belie a youthful enthusiasm for his work. For him, tagging turtles is less about the turtles themselves than the opportunity to study the ocean through their eyes: The ocean is not, it seems, a vast, featureless desert that they drift aimlessly across. It’s a diverse and intricately structured habitat that they exploit meticulously.

Polovina describes the journey of the loggerhead as “one of the world’s great migrations.” All of the loggerheads in the North Pacific were born on beaches in the southern islands of Japan. Genetic studies have shown that these same turtles are often observed along the coasts of California and Mexico as adults. Although there is no practical way to tell the age of wild turtles, juvenile loggerheads can spend as much as thirty years at sea. In fact, even at the leisurely pace of turtles, some of Polovina’s loggerheads travel more than 3,000 miles a year.

No one really knew, though, what happened to the turtles in between. Experts—even scientists like Archie Carr, perhaps the pre-eminent authority on sea turtles—believed that the juvenile loggerheads were passive migrants on the great ocean currents like the Kuroshio. Maybe the most dramatic discovery that Polovina and his colleagues have made has been the clear demonstration that loggerheads are not mere passengers on a transoceanic cruise; they are some of nature’s most accomplished navigators. They do not swim in a straight line from west to east; their erratic paths crisscross thousands of miles of ocean in a way that looks, at first, to be random. But it’s not.

The ocean, as it turns out, is far from homogenous. Satellite imagery has revealed it to be an intricate assemblage of vast and changing features. “There are eddies, meanders, fronts, upwellings, downwellings, convergences and divergences,” Polovina says. For turtles and other marine animals, these features are critical habitat. “To find them and to see how the animals are using them is a real advantage.” To do that, he relies on several different satellites. Some measure the ocean’s temperature, mapping thermoclines—boundaries between cold and warm water. Others exploit tiny variations in sea surface heights to chart currents, which, on a map, look like a paisley of eddies and meanders. Other satellites detect the color of the ocean’s surface, revealing, for example, the dramatic Chlorophyll Front, an oceanwide boundary between the cold, green, plankton-rich water of the Arctic and the warm but much more nutrient- poor blue water of the subtropics.

Combined with the satellite maps of the ocean’s features, the turtles’ route begins to unscramble. It’s clear that the turtles are traveling among the ocean’s varied features, seeking the most productive habitat. Like Turtle 124, they spend months feeding at the edges of warm-water eddies. They nuzzle into the crooks of meanders and into places where converging currents crowd their food sources together. In the winter, they’re especially fond of the waters along the Chlorophyll Front, which continue to bring food to the surface even when the great eddies of the Kuroshio Current have petered out.

Knowing where loggerheads are likely to be found isn’t a purely academic issue. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists them as “endangered,” meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the near future. In the United States, they’re listed as “threatened” and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Swordfish and tuna longliners sometimes accidentally hook turtles, but NOAA has set strict limits on by-catch. Once the Pacific Island fleet catches eighteen loggerheads or seventeen leatherbacks, the whole fishery is shut down for the season. The fishermen clearly have a real incentive to avoid snagging turtles. In 2006, the first year of the regulations, the eighteenth loggerhead was caught in March, sending the entire fleet back to port after only two months. Now, though, Polovina’s maps are available on the Internet; the longliners can simply avoid areas where there are likely to be loggerheads. The fishery hasn’t shut down since 2006.

One of the more remarkable things about Polovina is that he’s not a turtle biologist. “I’m an ecological nomad,” he says. Scientists typically become specialized over the course of their careers, but Polovina’s career has been characterized by highly productive dabbling. After an undergraduate degree in biology and graduate work in statistics, Polovina has bounced in five-year increments among different specialties. He did work in aquaculture and population dynamics. He studied the efficacy of artificial reefs in Japan and managed commercial fisheries here in Hawai‘i. Among his peers, though, Polovina is probably most closely associated with something called Ecopath modeling. “I’m famous for that,” he says. Employing simple statistical methods, Ecopath allows ecologists to predict the effect small changes will have in a large ecosystem—in essence, Ecopath is the precursor to modern ecosystem management.

It was probably his statistical bent that led Polovina to oceanography and the high tech world of satellite telemetry. The power of statistics to make predictions—their principal value to scientists—depends upon having sufficiently large and stable data sets. Some of the satellites Polovina uses have scanned the surface of the ocean continuously for decades. With these “very large and very unusual data sets,” he can study ocean features spread thousands of miles across the globe—often without leaving his desk. For example, he used a decade of satellite data to prove that the ocean’s desert zones—the vast, almost lifeless blue areas at the centers of the ocean’s equatorial gyres—are growing at a faster pace than would be predicted by current models of global warming. The unexpected growth could just be part of the cycle of El Niño and La Niña events, or it might forebode the continued decline in the world’s fisheries. “We may need another decade of data to know for sure,” Polovina says.

In the absence of this kind of data, the ocean can seem mute and undifferentiated to us. Though satellites can reveal some of its features, they don’t always tell us what those features mean to the animals and plants that live among them. Tracking the turtles allows Polovina to see the ocean through their eyes and to begin to understand the ocean as habitat. In addition to turtles, Polovina has tagged tuna and opah (moonfish) and even whale sharks. In effect, in addition to the satellites, Polovina has hundreds of little remote submersibles constantly scanning the features of the ocean. Polovina’s eyes narrow conspiratorially when he thinks of all these turtles gathering data for him. “Each satellite gives you a different way to find these features and to measure different aspects of them,” he says. “Then you put the animals out there. These turtles are 100 million years old; they’re sensing the ocean in a different way. In a way, we’re using these animals to tell us what part of the ocean is important.”

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Mystery of the Avocado

Ken Love, Avocado Man

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Jack Wolford

Down at the farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College, Ken Love and I watch people file through his avocado-tasting booth. Under the canopy, there’s a cornucopia of avocados. Love has lugged in more than 300 pounds of them from the Big Island. The avocado mavens quietly sample each of five varieties heaped in bite-size chunks on paper plates. One by one they solemnly taste each selection, savoring them like oenophiles. They take their duty seriously—nothing focuses one’s attention like a free sample—and some have to make two or more passes through the line before they reach any conclusions. While we watch, I hold forth on the intricacies of building the perfect sandwich—a life’s work.
“The world’s best sandwich,” I say, “is a double-decker contrivance of avocado and bacon on wheat toast.” Love sucks thoughtfully on his unlit pipe, watching as a volunteer deftly flays avocados with an old butcher knife and refills the sample plates. “But there are three provisos,” I continue. “The bread must be lightly buttered; the bacon must be crisp and smoky; and, most importantly, the avocado must be rich and nutty and spooned on in thick, ripe slabs.”

I’m preaching to a choir, of course. Love nimbly palms his pipe and chimes in with the chorus. “Yes, but those supermarket Calavos—they’re pretty much tasteless,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous California-grown varieties typically on offer at supermarkets.

The irony, of course, is that Hawai‘i is the world capital of gourmet avocados. Love, the vice-president of the Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers Association and an officer with the Hawai‘i AgriTourism Association, knows this better than anyone. For more than twenty years, he tended his own diversified Kona farm, 13 acres of coffee and tropical fruit trees—including a grove of avocados. Gradually he became disaffected with coffee (“I was suckered into the coffee thing by a real estate agent,” he says) and began concentrating on the tropical fruits. Three years ago he sold his farm to devote himself fulltime to projects like this—promoting Hawai‘i produce and persuading Big Island farmers to experiment with new, more profitable crops. Hawai‘i’s neglected avocado has become his particular bugbear. He’s written papers on the industry. He’s canvassed and counseled the growers. He’s scolded and pleaded with and nagged the wholesalers and grocers. Now, as the self-appointed spokesman for the Hawai‘i avocado, he stuffs his pipe into his pocket and begins a well-rehearsed lecture.

“Over 200 varieties of avocado trees grow in Hawai‘i,” he says, the result of three centuries of traders who ate avocados on their westbound passage from Mexico and Central America, saving the seeds of the ones they liked. Those seedlings flourished here, and local farmers—many of them Japanese coffee planters—grafted and cultivated the best varieties. Even today many of the local avocados carry the Japanese names of Kona coffee growers: Nishikawa, Yamagata, Ohata. “We have all three races of avocados here,” Love says. “We have West Indians, like the Malama, with smooth skin and large fruit; we have Guatemalans with hard, pebbly skin, like the Hawaiian Hass; and we have small, thin-skinned Mexicans, like the Linda.” With that diversity come advantages. We have varieties that grow at different altitudes and microclimates and trees that fruit at different times of the year; so, in theory, Hawai‘i growers can produce avocados year-round.

It isn’t just that Hawai‘i has more varieties of avocado; Hawai‘i has better-tasting avocados. The buttery, nutty flavor that makes the avocado uniquely savory among fruits comes from its concentration of vegetable fats. And the Hawai‘i avocado is the king of fats. “The California Hass,” Love points out, “has a fat content of about 8 percent; the fat content of the Kahalu‘u, on the other hand, can reach 25 percent. It’s like eating butter.”

That’s my cue to slip in under the awning to sample the goods. This isn’t Love’s first taste test. Just a couple of days earlier, he served up a similar mix of avocados to many of Hawai‘i’s culinary bigwigs—a cohort that included tony chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. According to Love, they not only ate raw avocados but tried them in innovative recipes. “Alan Wong was really partial to the Kahalu‘u,” Love says, “and the Malama, which he made into a soup.”

Those of us in the tasting line aren’t so genteel. The elderly lady ahead of me in line disposes of five big bites—nearly a whole avocado—before moving on. The young woman behind me takes advantage of a distracted volunteer to palm a cannonball-size fruit and drop it in her canvas tote. And at the end of the line, an aggrieved customer wants to know why he can’t buy a handful of sample No. 1. “They’re not for sale,” the volunteer tells him, “but if you’ll take a moment to fill out this questionnaire, you can have your pick for free.”

Love presides over the operation with a kind of rumpled aplomb. He hasn’t always been a farmer (he spent thirty years traveling the globe as a photographer for Associated Press), but he certainly looks the part. Beneath his floppy hat, he’s red-faced and jowly and sports a Brillo-like mustache. He wears old, scuffed boots and faded jeans that hang loose beneath a modest paunch. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of a thinking man. Leaving the details of the booth to the volunteers, he stands out in the sun, answering questions about avocados and making pronouncements on the proper role of agriculture in society. With his eclectic interests and contemplative cast, he reminds me of Jefferson’s farmer-philosopher.

For my part, I take a scientific approach to the taste test. Systematically, I take at least three bites of each variety—one for consistency, one for flavor and the rest to accommodate my basic greed. By the end—three passes through the line, in my case—I reach the inescapable conclusion: All five varieties are outstanding. Three of them—the Malama, the Kahalu‘u and the Linda—are the three best avocados I’ve ever eaten. Each different, each flawless. I begin to understand the extent of Love’s frustration that Hawai‘i’s superior avocados are unsung, unknown and, unless you have a tree nearby, mostly unavailable.

Of course, marketing 300 kinds of avocadoes is impossible. There’s just too much variety. Even Love has a hard time keeping them straight. There are big, nutty Murashiges and Yamagatas, which are great for salads. The fruity Yamanes and Beshores are suited to dips and guacamole. The issue is further clouded by hundreds of wild avocadoes—the unnamed varieties and accidental hybrids found in people’s backyards and escaped into the forest. Typically these are inferior fruit; the great ones are quickly shared among friends and farmers. Thus, the vaunted diversity of Hawai‘i’s avocados actually works against them in the marketplace. “People don’t know what they’re buying,” Love says.

Although you’ll occasionally find a few local varieties at a farmers market, you’re unlikely to find them at the supermarket. Even grocery stores with local roots, like Times and Foodland, rarely offer Hawai‘i varieties; at the national chains like Safeway and especially the big-box stores like Wal Mart and Costco, the avocado bins are full of imported fruit. “Last year,” says Love, citing a 2007 study he helped to organize, “Hawai‘i farmers produced over 800,000 pounds of avocados, but nearly half of that went to waste.” It’s not for lack of avocado consumers, he points out. While more than 350,000 pounds of prime avocados rotted on the tree here, Hawai‘i’s supermarkets and wholesalers imported 1.5 million pounds of avocados from California and Mexico.

“Currently, grocery stores only pay 60 to 80 cents a pound for local avocados, but they pay $2.30 for the California Hass,” Love says. Sometimes the local varieties retail for less than the wholesale price of the California avocados. Thus the wastage: For many farmers it’s not worth the effort to harvest local avos. Besides, few are actually avocado farmers; they’re coffee or macadamia nut or tropical fruit farmers who happen to have a few avocado trees.

This is all madness, of course, spending top dollar for an imported, inferior fruit when you have a veritable orchard in your own backyard, but Love has his work cut out for him if he wants to make sense out of Hawai‘i’s avocado market. Despite their superiority, there’s a built-in prejudice against local avocados; grocery stores want the consistency and predictability—both in look and supply—of the California avocado. Never mind the quality.

Export isn’t an option either. “This year is a centennial of a sort,” Love says. “Back in 1908, the California growers got the Hawai‘i avocado banned. For the fruit flies, they said.” There are treatments for the fruit flies, but they’re not economical for Hawai‘i’s small-time producers. Now and then there’s a quiet movement to lift the ban—at least for the cold, northern tier states during the winter, when fruit flies pose no threat to agriculture. Love isn’t hopeful, though; the big California producers will never let it happen. Instead, he focuses on persuading local markets to change their buying habits.

Taste tests at tiny farmers markets are well and good—they educate consumers, and they’re useful to growers who want to know which varieties people prefer—but Love knows they’re just a first step. The problems facing the Hawai‘i avocado are systemic, and solving them will require better collaboration among Hawai‘i growers—perhaps branding Hawai‘i avocados much like Kona coffee has been. But to Love, the issue is just a symptom of a much larger problem, one that has to do with us, the consumers. “We have 168 million pounds of competitive vegetables coming into Hawai‘i each year,” he says. “Things we already grow here.” If we want to support Hawai‘i agriculture—and those incomparable avocados—then, as Love puts it, “We have to consume local.”

Of course, Love too is sometimes preaching to the choir. Just as the farmers market is winding down, an elderly couple makes their way deliberately through the samples. They linger over the Linda, savoring its creamy texture and indescribable richness. Like an old memory, a smile passes between them, and wordlessly they link hands. As they stroll away, Love and I can just make out the faded logo on the back of the old man’s shirt. It reads, “Support Local Agriculture.”

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