NOAA To Assess Reefs for Coral Bleaching, Map Sea Floor

Jul 4, 2019

NOAA's scientific research vessel, the Oscar Elton Sette, at Pearl Harbor
Credit Amy Nakamura / HPR

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will set sail on the research vessel Oscar Elton Sette Tuesday to search the waters around the Hawaiian Islands for coral bleaching.

The vessel will carry more than 20 scientists as they hunt for cases of bleaching, which occurs when warm ocean waters triggers the coral to push out then algae that gives the reefs their color. The coral then turns white and becomes more susceptible to disease and death.

In 2015, Hawaii experienced the worst occurrence of coral bleaching since scientists began monitoring the reefs. In areas off the Big Island, around 90% of reefs died off due to bleaching.

Jacob Asher, a fish researcher with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, said his team will be conducting checkups on the health of the reefs.

“Some bleaching in the environment is considered normal, but it has been happening more and more often,” said Asher. “And as it happens more often, it affects [the coral's] ability to recover over time and that’s what the concern is here.”

The ship will sail from Honolulu to Lana’i and the Big Island. After that, scientists will move on to study the coral around Kaua’i, Ni’ihau and Oahu. The researchers are expected to wrap up their work in early August.

At the end of the month, another research trip will kick off on a separate mission. The NOAA ship Rainier will be mapping the ocean floor around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Some of the NOAA data on Hawaii’s ocean floors have not been updated since the 1940s.

Commanding Officer Benjamin Evans
Credit Amy Nakamura / HPR

Benjamin Evans, commanding officer of the Rainier , said the mapping data will help the scientific efforts of the Oscar Elton Sette.  

“It helps people identify the shape of the sea floor at a very high level of detail and also makes some estimations of what the sea floor is composed of, which you could imagine would be useful if you’re trying to identify ecosystems,” said Evans.

The mapping mission will move toward western Maui and the south shores of Molokai before heading to the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.