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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2003

Voyage yields some deep-sea delights

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Scientists and students shook their heads in amazement over discoveries of new species of corals, a surprise visit from a monk seal and what happens on a research vessel that can dive more than a mile deep.

A monk seal was among the deep-sea surprises that researchers encountered during their 64-day voyage in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Photo courtesy Dr. Amy Baco-Taylor, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Terry Kerby and Max Cremer, Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory

The researchers had just returned from a 64-day voyage in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with support from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, its deep-sea submersibles Pisces IV and V, a remotely operated vehicle and a seafloor mapping sonar system. They traveled aboard the University of Hawai'i's research vessel Ka'imikai-o-Kanaloa (which means "heavenly searcher of the seas").

Amy Baco-Taylor of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said the team was studying reproductive biology and genetics of deep-sea precious corals. "We made exciting discoveries, including four new coral beds, gold corals found spawning in the sample jars on the surface" and some young coral trees that they hadn't observed before.

Terry Kerby, submersible pilot and operations director, showed about 250 students around the research vessel in small groups yesterday, explaining the workings and the tools of the subs and crews.

Kerby said the voyage was full of discovery but the most exciting moment probably came when a monk seal encountered the vessel at a depth of 1,600 feet.

Fishery biologist Frank Parrish said the team was shocked to see the seal. "I believe it's the first time a monk seal was seen to be associated with deep-sea precious corals and the first time a monk seal was seen from a submarine at such a depth," Parrish said.

Although researchers know the marine mammals can swim at great depths, it was unusual to see the seal foraging for food so far below the surface, he said. "The monk seal swam up and looked in," Kerby said with a smile.


Students in grades three to seven came from four O'ahu schools to the Sand Island pier to learn more from the team just back from a voyage of discovery. The schools are Kalakaua Middle School, Le Jardin Academy, Moanalua Middle School and Sunset Beach Elementary.

Le Jardin fifth-grader Tyler Cundiff couldn't get over the fact that the submersible can take teams 6,500 feet deep. "I can only go down about 10 feet and then my ears start popping!" he said.

Pilot Chuck Holloway assured the students that the vessels have many safety features that would help them return to the surface even if mechanical and electrical problems trip up some of their technology.

Moanalua seventh-grader Chloe Minami got to take home a reminder of her encounter with the scientific team. It was a Styrofoam cup that was standard size when taken aboard the ship but emerged much tinier after the ship dived far below the ocean's surface. "As it gets deeper, the water pressure pushes the air out of it and it gets smaller," Minami said.

Moanalua Middle School seventh-grader Xaviera Quintero said she thought yesterday's field trip was better than most because the topic was interesting, the researchers explained their issues well and they gave out some good "free stuff."

The educational goodies included "Explore" pens, rulers, a pin, brochures and information sheets and some postcards with photos taken far below the ocean's surface.

Quintero also was amazed by the story of a 32-foot-long shark whale and "how it was so friendly" to the exploring team, and stayed with them for 45 minutes.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.