Scuba diving near the island of Ni‘ihau off the coast of Kaua‘i is quite an adventure, as there are areas of crystal-clear water and underwater, 300-foot-tall cliffs just teaming with marine life. At about 90 feet deep are a series of large caves that you can dive through with a group of four to five experienced divers. In those deep-water, dark caves grows a very rare coral called a black coral. This unusual coral only grows in areas with little if any direct sunlight, which is unusual for most coral. These black corals can grow to five foot tall, and they have many branches that look like long, golden feathers. Hiding in the black coral branches deep in the cave is one of the rarest fish in Hawai‘i. It is the six-inch longnose hawk-fish. In the bright dive lights this beautiful, unique-looking fish is bright orange.
Most Hawaiian hawk-fish live in shallow water, and they perch up on top of the live coral heads. Their Hawaiian name is “pilikoa,” which means “to stick to coral,” but the long-nose hawk-fish does not have a Hawaiian name because they live so deep that no one from old Hawai‘i more then likely ever saw one.
Back over 50 years ago the long-nose hawk-fish was not so uncommon, as there were many reefs at 70 to 120 feet deep that were covered with black coral so the fish had a lot of corals to live in. But black coral became a very popular jewelry item and was worth a lot of money. Many jewelry stores especially in Maui specialized in selling the rare black coral, and it became famous worldwide. It was so popular that many divers made a living diving down with a hand saw and cutting the black coral trees off of the reef to sell to the stores. They virtually wiped out almost all of the black coral in Hawai‘i except a few pockets that grew way back in deep caves the divers could not get to. The long-nose hawk-fish was also almost completely wiped out, as for some reason it will not survive in any other coral-reef habitat except on the black coral.
A few years back the removal of live coral or any kind off of the reef in Hawai‘i became illegal. Over the past 10 years we are now seeing some isolated colonies of black coral starting to regrow on the underwater cliffs from 90 to 150 feet deep, and on most of those new black corals are a few new long-nose hawk-fish. So hopefully some day in the future this beautiful fish will not be so rare and the Hawaiian people can give it a good new Hawaiian name.
You can see the long-nose hawk-fish and its black coral home in action in the underwater educational video “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” at www.underwater2web.com.
Aloha from under the surf.
Terry Lilley, a marine biologist, lives in Hanalei. His websites include underwater-2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.