Hokulea, Hikianalia survey hurricane-damaged reefs in northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Hokulea training on Maui/FILE
Hokulea training on Maui/FILE(Polynesian Voyaging Society)
Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 9:40 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 23, 2021 at 10:24 PM HST
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LALO, NORTHWESTERN HAWAIIAN ISLANDS (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Polynesian Voyaging canoes, Hokulea and Hikianalia, are helping NOAA document damage and regrowth of corals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The corals were damaged in the wake of a hurricane that tore through part of the islands three years ago.

Scientists say the damage and regrowth of reefs will become a more frequent cycle — due to the effects of climate change.

Nainoa Thompson has been aboard the Hokulea as it made its way to Lalo in the French Frigate Shoals. It’s in the area where Hurricane Walaka swept up from the south as a category 3 hurricane in October 2018 — turning reefs into rubble.

Crews from the canoes dove into the water to take a closer look at what’s left of the reefs.

“Much of the coral that was once there — big giant table corals — are pretty much all gone. And so that shows you the power of those hurricanes and the destruction that it can create,” said Thompson aboard the Hokulea as it was anchored off La Perouse Pinnacle.

It’s an underwater scene of devastation that researchers first saw shortly after Walaka.

“When I dropped down on the dive I thought I had gotten the wrong GPS points because it was like really, like just no coral, just dead coral everywhere,” said Kaily Pascoe, a coral research diver with the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

While Walaka brought big surf to the south shores of Oahu, Pascoe said the waves directly in Walaka’s path were a lot larger.

“The Central Pacific Hurricane Center estimated that it was roughly 36 to 50 feet, was the wave height on the southern end of the atoll.”

Those waves wrecked coral as deep as 80 feet.

But nearly three years later, the crews of Hokulea and Hikianalia also saw hopeful signs.

“We found a lot of small coral polyps that build these big table corals,” said Thompson. “The species that builds the table corals are fast-growing.”

And it may be vital to marine life, as scientists believe powerful hurricanes like Walaka will become more frequent.

“The scary part is we’re likely going to see more storm systems like this in the future, and so the better we can determine how they may affect reefs, the better chance we have of short of predicting the damage and the impacts we might see,” said UH Hilo marine scientist John Burns, who also said having the voyaging canoes visit is an opportunity in conserving and monitoring the area.

Hokulea and Hikianalia left Lalo Wednesday evening, heading on an east-southeast course back toward Nihoa.

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