A unique new exhibit at the Waikiki Aquarium will introduce visitors to the undersea wonders of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including masked and Japanese pygmy angelfish, yellow barbell goatfish, an undescribed species of butterfly fish and table corals collected by scientists with rare government approval.
FAR FROM HOME
On July 2 the Waikiki Aquarium will open a Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Exhibit made up of marine life from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument:
The $300,000 exhibit, which opens July 2, will offer the public a nearly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see living samples of some of the 7,000 marine species in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth.
In addition to the fish, which will swim in a 4,000-gallon tank, interactive touch screens will provide additional information on the significance of the islands, their ecology and biodiversity, and the importance of preserving the almost untouched marine ecosystem, said Andrew Rossiter, director of the Waikiki Aquarium.
"It’s a unique experience to see these animals alive in conditions that closely represent their surroundings," Rossiter said.
The exhibit will help the monument and its government partners satisfy their mission to bring educational opportunities to people who are unable to experience the northwestern islands directly.
Only about 30 to 60 people a year, mostly scientists, get the chance to visit the monument, Rossiter estimated, and those who do take considerable time and risks in the process.
"You are self-contained, out of reach of medevac," said Richard Pyle, an ichthyologist at the Bishop Museum who has completed five scientific expeditions to the monument.
"You are several days away from air landing strips, and you are at least a week away from having another boat come back. The ship is the medical facility."
In these protected Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, masked angelfish swim at depths of 50 feet, well within the 130-foot limit usually set for regularly trained divers. But they have company.
Massive schools of predators roam there, Pyle said.
"There are large schools of jack, grouper and sometimes 80 to 100 sharks," he said. "It makes you realize what’s absent here in the main Hawaiian islands."
FORMER President George W. Bush restricted access to the northwest isles in 2006 when he established most of it as a national monument.
Last year it joined the ranks of Yellowstone National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Redwood National and State parks, Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, among others, when it was named as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site.
Three co-trustees — the Commerce and Interior departments and the state of Hawaii — joined by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, protect the monument, which has huge scientific and cultural value. They gave Waikiki aquarist Richard Klobuchar, Pyle and others permission to spend weeks there last year aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel.
Although Klobuchar is arranging a second trip back to the monument, Rossiter said he’s never had the opportunity. Neither have 99.9 percent of all scientists.
"Now I don’t have to go," he said. "I can see it here at the aquarium."
The exhibit is a significant step for the University of Hawaii-affiliated aquarium, Klobuchar said. It took about 10 months to get the 18-page application approved.
"We were the first group ever approved to bring back live specimens," he said. "We are trying to go back."
Any new mission, like the old one, would have to piggyback onto another purpose, Pyle said.
"The catching of the fish is only one of the reasons to go up there," he said. "It’s nice to be able to bring them back, but even without them we would have been doing research dives."
Since the process is so grueling and the islands so distant, scientists must get every mission right, Pyle said.
"It’s not easy to go back," he said.
Months of planning went into the mission that brought back enough fish and coral to launch the exhibit, Pyle said.
As a result, the aquarium will become home to the greatest number of masked angelfish on display under one roof, Pyle said. They are found only in Hawaii waters.
"They are the museum’s new mascot," said Pyle, who brought back nine. "It’s unprecedented to have so many in one aquarium."
Collectors go to great lengths to find or purchase these fish, which can retail for up to $20,000. Rob Lower, a local marine ornamental fish collector, died last year after a deep dive off Kauai for masked angelfish, said Pyle.
"People, especially in Japan, get nutty for these things," Pyle said, "but I doubt that any aquarist has more than two or three of them."
Still, the value of the northwest isles exhibit goes beyond the monetary, he said.
"We don’t think about it in terms of dollars," Pyle said. "In my mind the No. 1 aspect of the exhibit is to draw attention to what is up there since (the remote site) is such a hard place for people to get to for themselves."