KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ocean scientists believe up to 75 percent of the dominant corals in Kaneohe Bay have lost color and turned white because of warmer than normal water temperatures. In recent weeks they have been diving in the Bay and at Waimanalo and Lanikai beaches to document the outbreak.
"Corals have thermal limits, same as any animal. They can only live between a maximum and a minimum temperature," said Frazer McGilvray of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources.
He said studies show the average air temperature in September was hotter than it's been since the 1940s. The National Weather Service has said ocean temps are about two degrees warmer than usual.
"We are in a severe upswing in the temperature of the water," said Ruth Gates, researcher with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Gates said when the ocean gets too hot or becomes to acidic from carbon dioxide, the algae that give certain coral a brown color leaves the organism.
"When they lose them as they are now in response to temperature disturbances, the coral pales, becomes white, and at that point is likely to die," she said.
The Weather Service said recently that temperatures will remain unseasonably warm through January. McGilvray said coral around the state are in for a rough ride.
"Seeing these, for want of a better description, ghost corals that are just bleached and deathly white, it's never nice to look at," he said.
"What is slightly hopeful is that some corals appear to withstand these temperatures and survive," Gates said.
Corals create the habitat for fish and protect coastal areas. McGilvray said people can protect bleached corals by reporting sightings to the DLNR's Eyes of the Reef program. Gates advises people to stay away from bleached corals to give them a chance to recover.
"That means don't touch it. Don't pollute it. Protect it as if it was your own pet," she said.