National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle just completed three of the four days of Pisces submersible time in Hawaiian waters, funded by a National Geographic Society grant awarded in July. Another dive is planned for early September.
“The research goals included working with deep coral and fish experts Dr. Frank Parrish and Dr. Richard Pyle to explore and document deep reefs in Hawaii with special reference to a site near Oahu at Makapu’u, where I used the Jim diving suit for a National Geographic project in 1979,” Earle said in an email.
“I was fascinated by the bioluminescent bamboo corals (Lepidisis olapa) that pulse with rings of blue light when touched. I wrote about the experience in the 1980 NGS book, “Exploring the Deep Frontier,” and for National Geographic Magazine in a May 1980 article [alongside]. Returning to the site 37 years later and finding the forests of bamboo coral flourishing, along with stands of pink, gold and black coral, was exciting and cause for hope!”
Earle was retracing her dive in Hawaii last week in part for the National Geographic film “Blue Centennial” by a team headed by Bob Nixon. The documentary includes teenagers who are part of the narrative that features present and future “blue parks” that complement the current mostly terrestrial U.S. National Parks, she explained.
DOER Marine (Deep Ocean Exploration and Research), a marine technology company established by Earle, is the program manger for the NGS grant, with Earle as the chief scientist. Coral specialist Frank Parrish, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries Service, Honolulu Laboratory, and Richard Pyle, the highly acclaimed deep sea biologist based at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, are science collaborators.
“The objective was for Dr. Earle to return to the same area where she worked on a record-setting dive in 1979 using a Jim suit to see how the area had changed over time. Samples were collected at several sites (like the one in the photo alongside) as were some experiments with the corals,” said Liz Taylor, President of DOER Marine, also in an email. The project is called: “Exploration of Deep Water Biota with Pisces Submersibles near Oahu and Molokai, Hawaii.”
“In ‘Blue Centennial,’ Dr. Earle is traveling to a number of ‘hope spots’ with a group of young explorers and also engaging with regional kids along the way,” Taylor said. “The goal is to build the case for greater marine protection.”
Morgan Griffith, a high school biology intern, got a huge boost being able to work alongside Dr. Parrish for a few days, Taylor added. Morgan and other students got to dive in the submersibles with Parrish, Earle and Pyle. Some of this likely to be featured in the Blue Centennial film.
A central part of the story is the vital importance of the Pisces subs and the deep water ROV based at the Hawaiian Undersea Research Center (HURL).
The head of HURL is Terry Kerby, pilot of the Pisces subs since 1979. His colleague is Max Cramer, deep coral scientist and pilot of the Pisces 4 sub for more than a decade. Both are based at HURL at the University of Hawaii. The ROVs are highly specialized scientific vehicles that are vital to the success of marine projects.
The two submersible pilots are key players in the expedition and critical experts in exploring and documenting the nature of the deep sea throughout the Pacific, but especially in Hawaiian waters, Earle said.
“Submersibles are a critical tool that provide the only way for us to directly observe the ocean far below and far longer than scuba diving allows,” Taylor added. “The five kids that had an opportunity to dive hundreds of meters below the surface came away changed for the better. We need to preserve such opportunities to pair scientists like Sylvia Earle and Frank Parrish with students, artists, musicians and others and share their stories broadly.”
Sylvia Earle will publish updates about the project on Ocean Voices.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.