Scientists are searching for the underwater secrets of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, hoping to discover new life and build on previous explorations.
The Exploration Vessel Nautilis dropped beneath the waves Saturday, taking researchers to seamounts between the Musicians Seamounts and the Hawaiian Ridge to search for deep, high-density coral and sponge communities.
“We think that there could be incredible coral and sponge gardens on these seamounts based on previous work that was done nearby both inside and outside the monument,” said Dr. Christopher Kelley of the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.
Kelley is a lead scientist on the expedition along with Dr. Thomas Hourigan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program. Expedition Leader is Allison Fundis with Ocean Exploration Trust.
The expedition is ongoing through Oct. 1.
New information could do more than just paint a picture of the monument’s seamounts and life forms. It’s also part of a bigger expedition that’s exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean, surveying unexplored regions from British Columbia, Canada, along the West Coast of the United States, and west to the Hawaiian Islands.
The coral surrounding Kauai experienced bleaching in 2014 and 2015, when thermal stress caused bleaching throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources.
The bleaching resulted in extensive coral mortality, and in 2015, DAR formulated a Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan to develop strategies for promoting recovery following the mass bleaching event.
But scientists say bleaching isn’t the only threat to corals.
Nearshore corals could be impacted by pesticides and pharmaceuticals in runoff and increased nutrition in nearshore waters.
Some theorize corals — deep water and shallow water species alike — could be impacted by noise pollution from things like sonar.
Katherine Muzik, marine biologist on Kauai, has studied deep-water corals and specializes in Octocorallia, a type of coral that has polyps with eight tentacles.
Muzik has discovered, studied and named corals from Fiji, Hawaii, Japan, Okinawa, New Zealand and Barbados.
“The octocorals living here on our Hawaiian seamounts are the oldest known living creatures on our planet, many well over 6,000 years old,” she told TGI in late August. “These ancient octocorals are increasingly threatened to near extinction by careless human activities.”
Muzik points out militarization and mining as two threats to the lifeforms around the seamounts.
Researchers with the ongoing Nautilis expedition will conduct seafloor mapping and Remotely Operated Vehicle dives on unexplored seamounts to help determine how and when they formed and to document the biological communities that presently live on them.
Activities will be live-streamed around the clock, viewable from any computer with an Internet connection.