Researchers recently completed an 88-day expedition aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai to survey two remote regions in the Pacific. First, they traveled to the islands of Jarvis, Howland, Baker and Wake, all part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Then they traversed to the Mariana Archipelago, working their way up the island chain from the populated islands in the south to remote locations in the north.
During the expedition, researchers collected data to evaluate climate and ocean change, coral ecosystem health, and the extent of coral bleaching. Scientists with NOAA, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, San Diego University, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution participated in the mission.
Scientists survey coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. Pacific region every year. The data they collect is used to evaluate how coral reefs vary over space and through time. Coral ecosystems provide coastal protection, food, and livelihoods to millions of people worldwide.
NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program has boots on the ground and fins in the water to help communities understand and address the most pressing threats to coral reef and our connections to these resources.
What did researchers see during their 2017 journey through the Pacific? View our top 10 list of amazing images collected during this 88-day mission.
The Pacific Islands experienced unusually warm ocean temperatures in the last few years, during the longest global coral bleaching event on record to date. Prior to the bleaching event, Jarvis Island had very high coral cover. Preliminary surveys in 2015 and 2016 indicated that most coral colonies died due to coral bleaching. While at Jarvis in 2017, researchers surveyed these coral reef communities and assessed the recovery potential from the thermal stress that caused the coral to bleach.
On the east side of Agrihan Island, an octopus takes off across the rocky reef after being discovered by a diver. All reef life is important, including this clever invertebrate. These fascinating creatures can rapidly change color to blend in with their surroundings, making them difficult to spot.
The scientists found many crown-of-thorns sea stars at Alamagan Island. These prickly invertebrates feed on coral tissue. Here, the sea star leaves only the skeleton of this Acropora coral in its wake. In large numbers, they can do significant damage to coral reefs, but in small numbers, they are a natural key component of the coral reef ecosystem.
An extremely rare sighting at Farallon de Pajaros, scientists found this female angelfish after completing their fish survey. Little is published about this species beyond aquarium enthusiast blogs. Some describe it as being endemic to the Bonin or Osagawara Islands just south of Japan, although the researchers discovered this fish within the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument waters during their expedition.
Underwater volcanic vents near the Maug Islands release carbon dioxide gas that cause surrounding waters to acidify—a localized example of how carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere cause global climate change and ocean acidification. Maug's carbon dioxide vents occur near coral reef ecosystems, allowing scientists to glimpse the future of these ecosystems along a naturally occurring gradient of changing ocean chemistry conditions.
Despite their appearance, these Plerogyra corals, also known as bubble coral, are actually a type of Scleractinian, or hard coral. The tissue is soft and bubble-like, and hides the hard skeleton underneath.
Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) uncover many beautiful creatures, including this nudibranch.
Corals at Pagan Island seem to have fared much better than other areas hit hardest by the recent global coral bleaching event. Here is a close-up of an Acropora coral (typically more susceptible to bleaching events), which appears to be doing just fine.
If you look closely in the sand, sometimes you can find "star dust," or the star-shaped skeletal remains of Foraminifera, microscopic unicellular organisms that form an important part of the marine food chain.