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September 26th: Wonderland at Pearl and Hermes

Written By Dan Suthers September 27-28th, 2004

Looking towards Pearl and Hermes, one sees mostly sky and oceanI awoke on our first day at Pearl and Hermes Atoll to another day of ideal weather: "pop corn clouds," as Carlos Eyles put it two years ago, dotting the dawn. Pearl and Hermes Atoll is a large area fringed by barrier reefs protecting a shallow lagoon, itself containing an intricate maze of reefs (1166 square kilometers). [2] The atoll is named for two British whaling ships, the Pearl and Hermes, which went aground here in April, 1822. Pearl ran aground, and Hermes came to her rescue, only to meet the same fate. But there is an astounding happy ending: the crew were able to build a vessel from the remains of their ships and find their way back to Honolulu, well over 1000 nautical miles away [4].

The divers had spoken in anticipation of Pearl and Hermes as we tolerated the murk of Maro Reef. They said that the water will be clearer here, and they anticipated surveying this large habitat and following up on reports of coral bleaching. I decide it is worth getting up early for my first day at this aquatic wonderland.

The education team (David, Susan and myself) set out in the Zodiac, guided by Stephani, with Gaetano as our cox'n. The Mooring Team (oceanographers) would be replacing a Coral Reef Early Warning System (CREWS) buoy, and our plans intertwined with theirs. Due to the distance from the Hi`ialakai to the buoy site, Kyle Hogrefe, the Mooring Team lead, had decided to try to tow both the buoy and its anchor at the same time, saving one long trip. Our first assignment for the day was to help them rig this towing arrangement. The anchor was wrapped in a flotation device, lowered into the water, and brought to us. We held on to it while the buoy was lowered and put in tow. We then attached the anchor's tow line to the buoy, and this aquatic train--HI-2 the engine, and the anchor the caboose--slowly worked its way towards the atoll.

Spinner dolphins leapingWe planned to photograph the installation of the buoy, but they would take several hours to reach their site, so we set out for some exploration in the Zodiac. We found a break in the reef near Southeast Island, and entered the atoll, beginning a day of dazzling sights. Almost immediately, we were surrounded by several dozen spinner dolphins, apparently converging on us from several directions to investigate, and dancing about the Zodiac whenever we moved. Later, when snorkeling we could hear their squeals and chirps all around. I almost felt as if I had entered an alien planet (indeed, I was an alien in this world), hearing intelligent creatures of a decidedly nonanthropomorphic form all around me, yet only catching glimpses of ghostly forms as if in a poltergeist movie.

Seals on sand barWe motored west in search of the best place to photograph the lagoon. At one point we were passing by a sand spit with some seals on it. We saw one of the seals chase another off the sand and into the water. For their safety, we shut off our motor and drifted. They swam around playing with each other, and after a while, went back to the sand and resumed their nap, clearly unconcerned about our presence. Subsequently, we passed by some other islands, and then turned back to rendezvous with HI-2 at the buoy site.

turquoise and blue watersMotoring through the shallow waters of the lagoon, Gaetano remarked that the area looked "like a giant swimming pool" ... and indeed it is, a pool 12 by 20 miles in the middle of the depths of the Pacific [3], but a pool for wildlife, not for human crowds. The rendezvous took some effort, due to the intricate interior reefs. Stephani had loaded her handheld GPS with the coordinates of a route that would take us around some of the worst interior reefs, yet Gaetano found it odd to be headed east when our friends could be clearly seen to the north. One attempt at a shortcut near the end of the journey confirmed at a dead end that it was indeed better to follow the plan.

fish and reefThe buoy site, fortunately for me, was near a reef of varying depths, including waters shallow enough for my undeveloped breath-holding abilities. I alternated between documenting the installation process and investigating life forms on the reef.

The CREWS buoy replacement effort takes several steps. First, the lift bag is deflated until it provides insufficient flotation to keep the anchor aloft, and the anchor and flotation bag sink to the bottom under control of a diver. An "accumulator," which is essentially a giant bungee cord, is attached to the mooring anchor. This assembly is then raised up just enough to enable attachement of the other end of the cord to the chain coming off the buoy. Finally, the anchor is then lowered down to the bottom.

plates on anchor underwaterCoral "recruitment plates" (pictured left) are removed from the old anchor and taken up to the boat, and new ones are installed on the new anchor once it is in place. Recruitment plates are unglazed ceramic plates on which coral polyps can begin a new colony. By gathering the plates and observing what organisms have taken up residence a year later, coral scientists obtain one piece of the puzzle of coral distribution and regeneration. Typically, colonization begins in the spring, so the plates we left there will have less than half a year's growth before being collected late next summer by an expedition similar to this one.

Two divers deploying buoy anchorOnce the new buoy is in place, the lift bag is attached to the old anchor, and an air bottle is used to re-inflate the lift bag in order to bring the old anchor to the surface. (Anchors are replaced because the metal loop onto which the anchor cord is attached begins to rust after a year.) In today's operation, just as the anchor surfaced, an eel decided to abandon this home and swim down to the bottom.

Ulua (large fish)As we worked, several large ulua circulated about, investigating but not interfering. I also saw them around the reef, milling about a large school of tiny (terrified?) fish that kept close together and moved almost like a cloud of particles. I also saw many other wonders, such as various colorful tiny fish in the crevices, a predatory lizardfish trying hard to look like coral (and nearly succeeding), delicate lace corals, and pearl oysters that slam their doors shut as I approach: how do they know I'm coming? (This area was once rich in pearls; it's a coincidence that a ship of the same name wrecked here.)

Fish swimming over reefOnce our work with the Mooring Team was done, we left them to their long tow of the old buoy back to the Hi`ialakai, and headed out into the atoll for other adventures. Stephani wanted to conduct a practice dive with Susan, who had not dived yet on this trip: Stephani is her NOAA guide as an "observer diver." We found a small atoll within an atoll: a circular reef structure perhaps 100 feet in diameter filled with turquoise water over a sandy bottom. I swam about here as Susan and Stephani prepared to dive, but we moved outside this private pool when they decided it was not deep enough. Near the end of the day, I was circled by a sea turtle with just enough memory left in my underwater camera to record it.

I've described our activities, but fear I have not begun to describe the beauty of this place. The vast interior of the atoll has the most luminous and varied hues of water I have seen anywhere. In one day I have experienced a diversity of fish and been approached by three of the most appealing creatures (two endangered) in the Hawaiian archipelago: dolphins, monk seals and a sea turtle. I will remember this day for a long time.


Now that we are in Midway's time zone, sunset is an hour earlier. I barely caught the end of it after the scientists' meeting at 1800.

As I write, David and Susan are photographing fish brought back by the tow team by Brian Zgliczynski and Joe Laughlin, including an orange-red leaf scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus [1]). Some of the fish have been brought up from depth. Brian and Joe possess the unusual skill of being able to locate and deflate a fish's swim bladder with a hypodermic needle. Fish adjust their buoyancy by releasing gas into or absorbing it from the bladder. As the fish is brought to the surface, the gas expands more rapidly than the fish can absorb it, making the fish uncomfortable and necessitating this procedure.

During tonight's Towed Optical Assessment Device operations, black corals, growing directly from the sandy bottom, are being seen for the first time on this trip.

Sky after sunset

[1] Hoover (1993)
[2] Maragos & Gulko (2002)

[3] NOAA (2003)
[4] Rauzon (2001)

Ship Logs

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Satellite image of Pearl and Hermes Atoll




Boat towing a buoy and anchor

HI-2 towing a CREWS buoy and anchor toward the atoll



Spinner dolphins underwater

Spinner dolphins



seals playing in water

Seals playing











divers working with buoy

Working on a CREWS buoy

Diver with buoy














Lace coral



Sea turtle

Sea Tutle








a red fish

Leaf scorpionfish


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